Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Creating Compelling Characters: Backstory, Goals, and Motivations

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

We took a week off from working through my new character worksheet (click here to download a copy), but today we are back at it. We are looking at backstory, goals, and motivations. And I put in the personality and conflict parts too, since they didn't really seem to fit in their own blog post. If you heard me teach this at OYAN, I've changed a few things about Trevyn since that talk. The more your write, the more you'll zero in on who your character really is.

First, backstory. It's important to know some of the things that happened to your character in the past as those things made him who he is today. And some of those things haunt him. And we want to help our characters grow in some way. And to do that, we need to know what his weaknesses are.

So here is Trevyn. He is the third son to a king who is a little nuts. He is fourteen at the start of book one, two months away from turning fifteen, which is the age of majority in my world.

Important Backstory
-Two months before Trevyn was born, several of his older brothers were given as human sacrifices to the god Barthos. As the third queen’s firstborn son, this made her an obsessively protective mother, smothering him.
-His brother Willek, who is ten years older, witnessed the sacrifice and was deeply affected by the deaths of his brothers. This caused Willek to be very protective of Trevyn.
-Trevyn grew up in a castle filled with politics. His father has four wives and people are always looking for ways to get on Trevyn’s good side to gain power at court. Trevyn hates all of that.
-As a lesser prince, the king decreed that Trevyn would  become a priest.
-Father Tomek took Trevyn out to sea for the first time when he was six. The sea became a safe-haven for Trevyn from his paranoid mother.
-A year ago, a girl named Shessy Wallington pretended to like Trevyn. He found out later that his brother Janek put her up to it with the promise that he’d get Trevyn to marry her, thus making her a princess. Trevyn hasn’t trusted girls—or his brother Janek—ever since.

Character’s Past
Happiest moment: When Trevyn took his first ride in a ship with Father Tomek and learned to draw a map of the coast. Both sailing and map-making became an important part of Trevyn's life from that moment on.
Dark moment: When Trevyn was eight, he set out to explore the castle and found his way into his father's privy chamber. He was proud of himself for not getting lost and was certain that his father would be pleased to see him. But when his father caught sight of him, he ordered the guards to take Trevyn back to his mother and lock him up for a week until he learned his place. This was the first of many moments when his father sent him away. Trevyn knows his father does not love him and never will.
Lie he believes: His live is meaningless—he doesn’t matter to anyone, except as a pawn.
Mantra he lives by: Life is too short to worry about anything, especially what people think. He should enjoy today because no one truly cares for him anyway, and tomorrow he might be locked up again. (An interesting thing about his mantra: He forces himself to believe it, but daily his instincts tell him differently, that his mother and Hinck and Father Tomek and Willek all love him. But the lie he believes about himself is stronger than the evidence that opposes this statement. Something huge is going to have to happen to change his mind about this.)

Goals & Motivations
Day-to-Day Goal: Explore wherever he can and perfect his maps of the coastline.
Story Goal (external): Solve a murder.
Story Goal threatened by: Evil priests.
The Push/Pull that makes him act: His room is ransacked.
Second Goal: Spend time with Mielle.
Conflicts with first goal: Both goals demand his time. Plus he doesn’t want to put Mielle in danger.
Goal he lives by (internal): Freedom.
Emotional Life Goal: To matter. To be someone’s #1.
How this shows: By proving to others that he is right/good enough.
He most values (take it away): Freedom. (This isn't always the same as the goal a character lives by, but it happens to be for Trevyn.)
Willing to die for: That his people would know the truth.
Greatest dream: To find new land beyond the bowl.
Noble Cause: To go where no man has gone before—and in that prove himself unique and worthy.
Greatest fear (make it happen in the story): Being locked up/loss of freedom.

Personality & Attributes
Personality descriptors: Impulsive, easy-going, creative, loyal, guarded, passive aggressive—purposely risks his life (No one would miss him, anyway).
Methods of action (When faced with a problem, how does he try to solve it? How does he act?): Works best alone, perfectionist. Must have meaning or he won’t do it. Or, if someone tells him he can't, then he's going to do it for sure.
Methods of evaluation (How does your character judge situations, life, himself, others?): Observes, reads.
Skills: Artistic, detailed, fast, athletic, smart.
Flaws: Sensitive, evasive, shuts down quickly, can't take rejection, distances himself from people, comes off as cold, emotional, hates criticism, acts indifferent towards his friends.
Traits/Quirks: Acts uninterested, fearless, untrusting, doesn’t like to sit, never gets lost.
Hobbies: Map-making, exploring, medieval parkour, climbing, any life-risking activity, annoying his mother.

Extra Conflict & Growth
Story change he must face: God is real.
How can I make life worse? Take away all his real friends (Hinck, Willek, Father Tomek, and Cadoc).
What can I threaten? The truth. His freedom. His choices.
What else can I take away? Mielle.
Six things that need fixing (For more on this topic, read this post.): Impulsive, stubborn, powerless to make his own choices, has a subconscious death wish, untrusting (afraid to risk his heart), he acts indifferent to his friends (Hinck).

Do any of these topics on the character worksheet help you as you work to create your characters? Which is the most interesting to you? Is there one you've never thought of before?

41 comments:

  1. I think I would have fun do the Personality/Attributes section. I am working on the characters for a new story right now, so this might be helpful. I have an app that I use for characters and such- it's called A Novel Idea. I usually do stuff on there. It's not as detailed as this, but it still helps :)

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    1. Interesting, Emily. I've not heard of that app. Sounds neat.

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  2. I've never thought of the one word descriptor, famous counterpart and day-to-day goal.
    The day-to-day goal helped me a lot to get to know my characters even better and know what they are
    aiming for daily. :D

    Trevyn is an interesting and fun character, makes me look forward to reading about his adventures. :)

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    1. Yes, I like the day-to-day goal too. I sometimes wonder what the rest of the world does all day, since I sit at my desk and write, write, write. :-)

      Thanks about Trevyn!

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  3. I've never put to much thought into how I would fix a character, more into how my character would change. I think I also need to become better at getting my characters to a place where they will decide what they will die for, another thing mentioned on the sheet.

    Very helpful, thanks :)

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    1. You're welcome. Yes, on the "will die for thing." At the start of the novel, and maybe not even until book two, Trevyn doesn't know that he'd ever die for anything. That will be something he will grow into as the books progress.

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  4. Trevyn's dad is craaaazy! What is this, Africa? The politics there sound like the kind my daddy and grandparents saw in Nigeria. I have a character that has no internal problems. The dude is almost a perfect saint/martyr. That won't work! Do you find character flaws by deciding who they need to be by the end, then making them the opposite in the beginning?

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    1. The continent is south of the equator on my planet, which is why my people are dark-skinned. And it's more of an ancient culture from my Blood of Kings storyworld.

      Yes, that can work well, Michaella. Try to find some flaws for the guy! If nothing else, you can go with the "every man" character who suddenly learns he has to do this incredible thing, but he doesn't know how yet and must get trained and make many mistakes as he learns.

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  5. Wow! That's really kool! I'll be sure to complete this!

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  6. Great character chart Jill! This is another Blood of Kings novel, right?

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    1. That's what I was wondering too, because I remember Barthos from that time that Achan was put on that pole thing, (don't remember all the details...). I hope it is!

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    2. What? What? Barthos, you say? Tee hee!

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    3. Soon, my lovelies. Announcement coming soon. ;-)

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    4. Is Trevyn the first kinsman? The guy who sailed his boats to Eret's? Wait, that puts this before Ca'an. Wow. These guys are really old.

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    5. *whistles* I cannot confirm or deny your theory... ;-)

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  7. Thanks for the post Jill! I've been looking forward to it all week. :)
    I never thought of the famous counterpart, it's been very helpful. I have one question. Is there a difference between epic fantasy and fantasy? If so, what is it?
    Thanks again!

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    1. Well, epic fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy. Other subgenres are high fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal fantasy, historical fantasy, science fantasy... things like that. And epic fantasy in particular tends to deal with bigger books. Books that have a HUGE scope. Lots of worldbuilding. Oftentimes the fate of the world is at stake. LOTR is epic fantasy. Brandon Sanderson's Ellantris and Way of Kings. Steve Erikson's Gardens of the moon is epic. George RR Martin's books. Robin Hobb. Patrick Rothfuss. Terry Brooks. David Eddings. Robert Jordan.

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    2. Sounds exciting! I can't wait til Kings Folly comes out. :)
      I'm trying to figure out what fantasy subgenre my series I am working on is...
      What was Blood of Kings? Sorry for all the questions by the way.

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    3. Blood of Kings was my first book series. You can read about it here: http://www.jillwilliamson.com/books/blood-of-kings-trilogy/

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    4. Sorry I didn't make myself very clear. I meant what subgenre is the Blood of Kings. I actually have all of your books on my shelf in my room. :) I love them all! I can't wait for Captives!

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    5. Oh, ha ha. I think Blood of Kings is probably a hybrid between epic fantasy and high fantasy. Epic fantasy is a large cast, major worldbuilding, the world is at stake, and the story often spans a long time period. High fantasy is a smaller cast, shorter time period, concept of good vs. evil. BOK has bits of both.

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    6. Okay, thanks! I think mine is high fantasy then. :)

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  8. That last picture ... from Sherlock season 3?

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    1. Yessssss! He really didn't have much of a part, though...

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    2. He was good in it, though! I liked that episode.

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    3. lol, I saw the last picture and was like, "I know that. Where is it from?.... Sherlock!!"

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    4. I was going to ask the same thing! Loved that one!

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  9. This is really interesting! But my, I think I have to think twice as much about my character as I do now, when I see this ;-)

    By the way, Jill: I read Replication and I really liked it! Good job!

    arendedewit.blogspot.com

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    1. Yeah, it's a bit of work...
      Thanks, Arende! :-)

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  10. Great post!

    Now I want to read this book. I've been meaning to read your others for awhile, but my library doesn't have them. Guess I'll have to buy them, then. (The horror! ;). I love owning books. It feels like less of a one-time affair. I've been wondering: how do published writers view potential readers getting their books from the library instead of purchasing them? I know libraries pay for books, and I know now that writers don't get royalties until their books break even, but how much of a difference does it make in terms of supporting an author? Does the factor of having your book on a library shelf increase sales even if the reader doesn't originally pay for it? (Sorry, I know, off topic questions.)

    I really need to look into my MC's back story and hack up something for why a princess in a warlike matriarchy would be obsessed with etiquette :P. I should also do something about her lack of mention of any family on her mother's side...I've finally begun to stop killing off parents willy-nilly for plot's sake, but what on a fantasy world is one supposed to do with grandparents? (Sorry, rambling again.)

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    1. Well, yes, it's better for authors if people purchase their books, in paper or ebook. Both are good. But it's also good for authors when libraries purchase them. Yes, we might only get one sale, but so many more people might stumble across our books in a library who might never know they exists. In fact, I got an email the other day from a teen guy who'd found Captives in his library and got hooked.

      So I'm a fan of both. And if you want to print our a review that you can take to your library and request that they order it, I have two on my website here. Scroll down to the almost bottom. The heading says, "TO TAKE TO YOUR LIBRARY" http://www.jillwilliamson.com/free-downloads-2/

      Also, you can ask your library to inner-library loan the book too. Enough libraries have my books that it shouldn't be a problem.

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    2. As to your character... are both her parents dead? Perhaps if she is next in line to rule, one of her parents or her guardian might put pressure on her to behave like a future queen, which would involve etiquette.

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    3. Thanks! Yeah, so many of the books I buy are because (well, if they're not assigned reading or something) I loved the author's other works in the library.

      As for my MC, both her parents are very much alive ( For once. I used to write only about orphans so I didn't have to deal with parents) and her liking etiquette is more of a rebellious trait, as much as liking manners could be called rebellious. Her older sister is in line for the throne after her mother, so the main purpose my MC's parents have for her life is to be "strong" as a political symbol of the female line. Unluckily for her, she's weak, bad at combat, and would far prefer handling things in a let's-talk-it-out sort of way. So I suppose what I was trying to get at up there is that I don't know how she'd acquire her opinions and likes when they're the opposite of her mother's and that I never mention any grandparents on her mother's side even though her mother's side should be the most important. I definitely should have reread my post before clicking publish, since now I see it reads like she doesn't have a mother. And yet I pride myself on writing...xD

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    4. I know I'm not Jill, but maybe she would be desperate to be good at something, because she can't fight well like the rest of her family, so she wants to be the best she can be at etiquette. Or something like like that. Hope this helps! :)

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    5. That does help! Thank you. :D And I had a lightbulb moment when I realized her maternal grandparents could be killed by (allegedly) the dragons, which besides getting rid of them serves two other plot purposes. I nearly whistled when I realized this, but it would have been awkward if someone asked me why and I told them that I had just figured out how to kill off two characters.

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  11. Trevyn sounds awesome! Like a character I'd really enjoy reading about.
    My character Elliot has a similar thing with his mantra, how he forces himself to believe that no one cares, even though there's evidence all around him that people do. Also, I never really thought about it until I went over the Six Things That Need Fixing, but in a way, he's sort of selfish, caring so much about protecting his own feelings that hurting others in the process doesn't exactly worry him.


    Alexa S. Winters
    thessalexa.blogspot.com

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  12. I am far from being a teenager, I really have gone through a lot of your back posts. I find that this is a wonderful resource for any aged writer! Just love all your help and encouraging ways! Write On-Di

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  13. This is a really cool, really helpful post!
    But I must know.
    WHO IS MIELLE?!?!?!

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  14. Hi. I've been trying to write my story for 5 years now, I think. I have gone over many plot lines, settings, magic systems and ideas. The only thing that I have never understood is backstories of characters. Seeing the examples here, I finally understand Thank you.

    Besides, You have a wicked idea and plot going on.

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  15. This seems like a great idea. Would this still work for a character with unknown ulterior motives? My main character has a past that is impacting his day to day life, but he doesn't know about it, so would this still work? If not, how would you write a character like this?
    Thanks.

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