Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Help! My Character is Perfect! Developing Backstory

By Jill Williamson

I notice a lot of perfect characters in novels, especially male heroes in romance novels written by women…

Those authors might argue, “He’s not perfect! He has a scar.” Or “He’s not perfect! He refuses to forgive his brother for stealing his fiancĂ©.”

Well, normal people have more than one imperfection. And real people tend to have a few more flaws than justifiable bitterness or a facial flaw.

To start, I want to talk about backstory. That’s kind of a bad word for new writers. I was always being told to cut out my backstory.So I’ve decided to do a series of posts on characterization. We’re going to explore different ways to make our characters feel three dimensional, alive, and real. And we’re not just going to look at imperfections. We’re going to look at good things too.

But I’m not talking about writing each character’s backstory into your novel. I’m talking about brainstorming it for yourself, to get to know your characters.

People develop personality through life experience. The first and most powerful influencers of a person’s personality are the parents. Think about each major character in your novel. What kind of parents do they have? Did these parents love by hugs, gifts, service? Did they criticize? Did they have addictions? Were they leaders in their community? Did they favor one child over another? Did they neglect all or one of their kids?

These childhood experiences tend to create very different people. A child who had lots of hugs and kisses from their parents generally feels secure and self-confident. A child loved by gifts could turn out a bit materialistic, or he just might appreciate nice things, or he might strive for a good job so that he can give his loved ones nice things too.

Whether or not your character has siblings affect his life experience. And his birth order is also a very important factor. I recommend that every writer own a book on birth order. It’s fascinating.A person who was loved by service could be a doer who takes care of people in a similar manner by cooking or cleaning, or he might be totally lazy, expecting that someone will do these things for him. A person with critical parents may think she can’t do anything right. It’s all how the child interpreted the actions of his parents that first shaped his personality. So take some time to think of each main character’s childhood and the people and events that shaped him.

Some other backstory elements to consider:
-Major life crisis (Deaths in the family, divorce, job losses, moving, abuse)
-Race and ethnicity
-Looks (Attractive people have different life experiences than unattractive ones. Also, if you consider a scar or birth defect, brainstorm where it came from and how your character feels about it.)
-Affluence or poverty

Take some time and think about your main characters. Choose one and write up a full backstory. Make sure to list names of family members that live close, and come up with some general descriptors for these people that will help you start to define who your character is. Share what you discovered in the comments.

47 comments:

  1. I love backstory - to the point where I spend more time working out my characters' histories than what actually happens in the story I want to tell. It's fascinating, and it really helps to develop character.

    Looking forward to the next one! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nick! LOL

      That's good, though, that you enjoy this part of the process.

      I wonder if you were to get stuck in your story, you simply need to have an imaginary conversation with one of your characters so they can tell you what to do, since they are already so developed.

      Have you ever had your characters do things you didn't plan for them to do?

      Delete
    2. Yup, definitely for me! That's what I love most about writing...I always felt that I'm not the only one in charge here, and I just love the surprises!

      Delete
  2. Really interesting -- I'm a huge fan of backstory, but I'd never really thought about the mechanics of it before.

    Great post.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This has to come into play. I major part of who you character is, I supposose. I have The Birth Order Book by Dr. Kevin Leman. The funny thing is, while I was reading it, I thought to myself, "This could be very helpful in writing. It could help me deepen my characters," and now that's what you are saying!
    Thanks for the post!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. 4Readin,

      Nice! I'm glad that you saw that while reading the book. And I LOVE Kevin Leman. He is hysterical. I heard him speak once, and I laughed so hard I cried. I do believe he's the lastborn of his family, is that right? Performers, anyway... LOL

      Delete
    2. Yes, I love his book. I have never heard him speak before but I am sure that it is great! I have not read any of his other books before either. I am actually re-reading it right now. Sometimes I get a bit irritated with his writing style though. He can come across very strong sometimes.

      Delete
    3. Yes, I think it's the "only" parts of his last-born-only traits coming through there. He does speak his mind. LOL

      Delete
  4. Backstory is probably my favorite part of the prewriting process. It's excciting to see just where your characters came from. It makes them more alive, in my opinion. Less 2D

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree!! And when I read books, I always wonder what happened to then before page one. What experiences and difficulties took place? What was their family life? Home envirornment? School atmosphere? Relationships with friends? It is kind of strange. Most people wonder about the character's future and I think bout their past.

      Delete
    2. I think that a good writer will make the reader wonder about both, the character's past and their future.

      Delete
  5. My high school manuscripts are chock full of perfect characters, although, interestingly, it's more often the women I wanted to be angelic rather than the guys. :)

    Thanks for this post, Jill!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have that problem too. I think it's because I want each of my heroines to be more perfect than I am myself...which can lead to some awfully dull characters ; )
      Thanks for this great post!

      Delete
    2. You're welcome, Rachelle. I tend to do the opposite. My guys are all heroic and my girls are annoying. LOL

      Delete
    3. LOL. Well, Martyr was certainly heroic, but Abby was definitely not annoying! ;)

      Delete
  6. Sometimes a character has backstory you didn't realize until you start to ask why they do things (motivation). For instance: what does the villain want? A: to conquer the world. Why? Uh...*BAM (insight hits)* A: Because he thinks that if he's in charge he can get revenge on all the people who hurt him when he was a little kid (or some such - villains have feelings too). I've heard that imagining you're interrogating your character can help with discovering things like this, although I've found that having someone else you trust who doesn't mind helping you ask YOU the questions can be very helpful. A real person is less likely to be put off with an answer like "because that's what villains want." Even repeating the question over and over to yourself can help. I had a breakthrough on my villain happen that way: I was wondering what would make her so mean. I knew she resented my heroine, and as I continued thinking about it, an image of her on her father's lap flashed before my eyes, and BAM I realized that when he died (which I already knew) she felt like she lost her last ally. She now felt resentful AND alone, which is enough to make anyone mean. My point being that backstory has a big impact on motivation. ; )

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. A very good point! It has a huge impact on motivation and must make sense to the reader.

      Delete
  7. When I'm done with my current WIP, I'm going to start on novellas of all my characters' backstories. I've already got one started, and I've known these characters since I was about ten, although I only started writing the book when I was fifteen. ^_^ I'm glad I waited, though.

    ReplyDelete
  8. This is great! This really helped me with my WIP's protagonist, Liam; he really was too perfect, and my former flaw idea was rather...cheezy. So his flaws now I rather like: Physically he has a broken wrist that never fully healed (I used to have this problem-easy to relate to) and it reminds him of his failure when he was a little kid: he and his friends built a go-cart for four as a summer project. Liam steered, his best friend and two other friends riding, but they didn't wire the wheel correctly. The go cart crashed through a fence and the kids fell out, all injuring themselves (Liam broke his wrist). Now Liam doesn't believe in himself and doubts his abilities as a leader (he also tends to make rash decisions) but in my book he ends up having to use his natural leader abilities, which he doubts, to help save his friends.

    Thanks for helping me out!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That sounds great, Sarah! Good job. And you're welcome!
      :-)

      Delete
    2. Ooohh, that sounds so good. I want to read your book!

      Katelyn

      Delete
  9. Fantastic post!! :) Sometimes my characters have been too perfect, but most of the time they're just too messed up. Technically I am the author of one novel (a really bad one, if I'm allowed to say this). But I've never done any editing on it or anything like that. It kind of seems to hopeless to go back to. :P I'd like to start a new story, and I keep trying but I always run into all kinds of glitches.

    Anyways, that was long & unrelated to this post. I agree about the birth-order thing. I'm second of 6-going-on-7 children, and that's definitely affected my life.

    Abbie :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Why does editing your novel seem hopeless, Abbie?

      And what kinds of glitches keep you from starting a new one?

      Delete
    2. What skip the editing?!? That is the best part! Or at least it is my favorite part. I know some people do not really enjoy this process, but I love it. I would also encourage you to edit and revise because this will make you and your book stronger, even if it never gets published. Besides, first drafts are destined to e full of need-to-fixes. I am sure that there are many authors who would confess that the first draf of their best seller was not a best seller until they edited ad revised and edited and revised some more. Keep working at it! :)

      Delete
  10. I actually don't have as much of a problem with my characters being perfect as I would think. Sometimes, I wonder if I give my characters too many flaws.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That could be, Brian. But as long as he is likable to the reader, you're probably okay. You just want to avoid having your reader roll his eyes and say, "This guy is nuts!"
      LOL
      I'm sure you're MC isn't "that" flawed. :-)

      Delete
  11. I don't think I've had much of a problem making my characters flawed enough, (because perfect characters are really boring to me) but I have had a lot of trouble getting to know my characters, especially the main character. Character journals have helped a lot, and I find that I include a lot of backstory in them (but exclude it from my actual work, usually.) For example, I decided while writing my WIP that my MMC, Milo, lost his mom when he was in fifth grade. It makes ME, as a writer, more interested in who he is. Because I always have trouble being interested in my main characters. *Is really hoping for a post on creating dynamic, interesting, unique main characters.*

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good idea with the journal, Jessica! We're going to be talking a lot about characters over the next few weeks. I don't have a one-post answer for how to make your main character dynamic, interesting, and unique, but as long as their goal is clear to the reader, you'll be on the right track. Hopefully all our posts will inspire you.
      :-)
      Jill

      Delete
  12. Oh, I'm excited for this. I've been struggling with one of my characters!
    It's not that I can't come up with backstory, I can't cone up with one I'm happy with using or like for more than one day,

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Maybe you aren't examining your character thouroughly enough. I find that most of my characters have a backstory, I just have to find it. It's often a matter of running through the "whys" of a character that I find something that clicks, something that makes me say "Yes! That's it exactly!" I sometimes find that having someone else ask me why a character did something or feels a certain way can help put me in the character's mind, and helps me find a piece of their backstory I had sort of sensed, but hadn't realized. Looking at the logistics of your story can hep too. If so-and-so is going to be at a certain place at a certain time, or do something at a certain place, there has to be a reason - and a reason they can't do something else. A mentor has to have a reason to help the hero and a bully has to have a reason to bully others. Hope this helps!

      Delete
  13. As a reader, I've noticed a lot of books with the backstories in flashback etc. and it's those books that I love the most. As a writer, I'm fascinated by the motivation behind my characters behaviour, character, and actions, and I love writing up a detailed description about that...maybe that's my WIP until now is still a WIP. XP

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Me too RaeAnn! I love the backstory/flashback scences! They explain to much of the MC's character and why he does this or feel this etc. Too many of these scenes take away from the story though. It has to be done right.

      Delete
    2. Both good points, RaeAnn and 4Readin. Jeff Gerke told me that if you are going to put a backstory/backflash in your book, it has to be something that the reader has been dying to know, and you should put it at just the right place for a big reveal. I thought that was good advice.
      :-)
      Jill

      Delete
  14. I love back stories! Each and every one of my characters has one. It's so important to who they are. A good example of incorporating back stories we in the twilight saga, Eclipse. Say... Esme lost a child in her human life so she is extremely maternal towards everyone now. She wouldn't be quite the same character as she was in the books. Thanks for the great post, got me thinking!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's true, Michelle. And because we know that about Esme, she becomes sympathetic and we love her, like, instantly.

      Delete
  15. A couple of years ago, I was in a play at our community theater and our director gave us a great piece of advice. She told us that each time we stepped on stage, we had to know exactly what the character had just been doing. Sometimes the script told us, but generally we had to sit down and think about where we'd been "coming from" so that we could enter the scene correctly.

    I think backstory is the same way. If you don't know where your character is "coming from" then you're not going to write the scene or novel correctly. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's exciting. I love the musical/theater type productions. I am actually going to see the Sound of Music in May. It sounds like good advice.

      Delete
    2. Oh, that's a good idea! Thanks!

      Delete
    3. Oooh, Gillian! That's fun. I'm going to try that today and see if it has any effect on my scenes. Thanks!
      :-)
      Jill

      Delete
  16. Great post! I enjoy writing backstories! (The hard part is putting to much of that back story in a novel)
    Thank you so much for the post!

    Also, I was wondering if you had any tips for developing redemption characters. I have a character I want everyone to hate at the start but at the end be a much more likable character. I'm not entirely sure how to do that beyond revealing what makes him who he is, and having him change a little.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It works best if everyone (your main character, especially) misunderstands this guy. And the reveal is the best way to do it.

      For example, say everyone hates him because he dresses like a punk and he stole a car. But later in the book, the MC finds out that he stole it to take his terminal little brother to the hospital because his mom was too drunk. So instantly, we get it. He's not who everyone thinks. He's been judged unfairly.

      If you really want him to be a jerk, then you need to have something happen that changes who he is. And that's part of his character journey. So think about his goal and motivation (like I talked about on Friday's post) and come up with a way to change that.

      Delete
  17. So wait-- what if your character has TOO MUCH drama going on in their lives? I noticed most of my females have issues trusting guys and most of my guys are-- to put it lightly-- damsels in distress. How do you know what's too much conflict in someone's life, and how do you balance that out?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Critique partners really help me there. They'll tell me if the character is too whiny or foolish or annoying. But I can usually tell if they are. But my critique partners validate that concern. And if my characters are too much of something, I try to go in and scale it back. Look at what's happening in their scenes, tweak their reactions, maybe even cut a scene.

      You need enough conflict to keep the reader turning the pages. So you need to dangle that story goal out in front of your main character so she'll keep on chasing it. But you don't need so much conflict that your book becomes a soap opera.
      *grin*
      Jill

      Delete
  18. I definitely think that character development is essential, but the more I write the more I realize that it's not an easy thing to do! It's important to make sure that your character isn't perfect, but at the same time, you've got to be careful so that you don't give them too many flaws or make their backstory too dramatic. It's got to be realistic, and sometimes that's difficult to get right. Scratch that, it seems like it usually is. ;) Thanks for the advice, Jill - I'm looking forward to more posts of characterization!

    ReplyDelete

Disagreement is welcome. Rudeness is not. Please be considerate of each other!