Monday, May 9, 2016

Creating Characters By Working Backward




Stephanie Morrill is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com and the author of several young adult novels, including the 1920's mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street, which releases in February 2017. Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.



"The definition of superb animation is that each character on the screen makes you believe it is a thinking being."

-Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.

Ed Catmull is one of the founders of Pixar, and I thought his book, Creativity, Inc. about the history and inner workings of Pixar was fascinating. When I heard this insight about animation (I was listening to the audio book), I immediately thought of how that was true for written characters as well. That when a book comes alive for us as readers, it's when all the characters seem to be thinking beings rather than just words on a page.

For the writer, knowing your characters' backstories is the key to creating this illusion. You can probably think of a person in your real life who made you scratch your head until you learned more of their story, right? A friend who obsessed over her grades, and you couldn't understand why until you met her father and saw how hard he pushed her to excel. Or how an uncle who talks nonstopalways about things you don't care aboutand you don't get why until you're at his house for dinner and you see how your aunt ignores him.

These little light bulb moments with real people can be created with our characters too. We can get away with our characters doing some very strange things, but only if we've taken the time to develop a backstory that supports it.

When I started working on The Lost Girl of Astor Street, my very basic idea for the plot was that Piper's (my main character) best friend went missing and Piper worked to find her.

But why would she do that? If my best friend went missing, I would certainly help the police as much as I felt ablebut my instinct would not be to start my own investigation. So I had to figure out why Piper would do this. Especially because in order for Piper to come across as brave rather than stupid, her choices need to feel logical to the reader.

I've found it's often easiest to work backward on these sorts of plot puzzles. I start with the result I'm wanting, and I work my way backward to find pieces that make it work.

What I knew when I began was this: When Piper's best friend is missing, Piper goes looking for her.

I started brainstorming potential "Whys?". Maybe she feels responsible for some reason. Maybe there's something she knows about her best friend that no one else does. Maybe she doesn't trust the police. Maybe in general she doesn't trust others to do what they say they're going to do.

Eventually I landed on a combination of the above, but that trust one struck me as particularly interesting. Why doesn't Piper trust people? Who could have lied to her?

When I followed that question, I landed on her mother's death. When Piper was 13, her mother got the flu. Everyone told her that her mother would be fine, but she died. That would leave a girl with some trust issues!

You can apply this to your own book too, but here's a fun exercise just to see how it can play out in the early story stages: Two people are traveling somewhere. They don't get along with each other, but for some reason they are stuck together on this journey. Why? Try taking this several layers deep, just to see what fun things you can unearth.

I'd love to see what you came up with in the comments section!

14 comments:

  1. Hmm...the two people, let's call them Steve and Bill (so original, I know) were both mountain climbers, climbing the jagged reaches of Everest. When a massive snowstorm knocks them both unconscious, nobody can find their bodies and their respective friends and teams assume them dead. When they finally come to, they find nothing else but their own backpacks and a whole lotta snow, and only find each other through sheer luck. But Steve's climbing gear is damaged, and Bill has no food, and they can't survive without working together and sharing supplies. They're forced to escape the harsh snow with only each other even if they get under each others skin.

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  2. Ooo, this is a great strategy! I'm having some trouble developing my secondary characters at the moment--some find themselves quite easily and some I have to work at a bit more. Doing it this way will help a great deal, I think. And I'll definitely ponder at that little excercie, it's great to just practice brainstorming ideas! Thanks for the post! :)

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    1. With secondary characters, I always make sure that by the end of the backstory I not only understand them, but that I love them. Because if you can't appreciate a character in some way, however despicable, after writing a backstory, then you don't understand them. With understanding, comes empathy.

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    2. Very well said indeed. However, my MC is one of the worst characters I've ever created and I think he's a completely despicable man! Even so, I love to write as him and I feel as though I know him inside and out (perhaps because I projected my bad qualities into him). So I suppose it's not just about loving them but knowing them and, as you say, understanding them. Thank you for your thoughts :)

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    3. Lol! He sounds like a very interesting person:) Why is he so despicable?

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    4. It's a rather long story X) but to keep it as simple as possible, he basically used his twin brother as a tool to get himself to greatness, and then delicately left him for nothing. To make matters worse, he also took the woman his brother was in love with and eventually ended up killing her. His position fell after a time and his brother took his place, so now he basically runs away from the danger his brother poses and manipulates others into protecting him. Basically, he's a huge liar and a complete coward...a truly delightful man :)

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  3. This really is a great strategy. I've always had some trouble developing characters to make them seem real, and this will probably help a lot. Thank you so much!

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  4. Two young men who can't stand one another are traveling together because they both have a strong desire to fly supplies to the people of a starving blockaded city. One is a pilot, and the other is a mechanic, and they have been assigned to work together. They must utterly depend upon one another.

    Both men, even though they hate each other, will work through their enmity for the sake of their common goal.

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  5. Ooh, I never thought about that. Sometimes I don't write enough about the person's character. Got to work on that. I might try the working backward strategy. :-)
    Thanks for another great post!!
    Gisela
    <3

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    1. Yes, if you don't know a character's future, you can always delve into the past, and if you don't know a character's past, you can always see how they've ended up in the future.

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    2. I mean, I think about the character's future but I don't really think about doing it backwards. I think I'll do this now!

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  6. Backstory is my favorite! Of course, I love the actual writing, but plot and backstory are definitely at the top. I have the whole process down, and I can churn out one in a couple minutes depending on the depth of said backstory. Though, I think I'm getting a little out of hand considering my last backstory I worked on was over two thousand words. It started a lot of brainstorming, but that's still ... a lot.

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  7. Love this post! It reminds me of several techniques I've learned over the years. Creating backstory is one of my strengths. I personally love the working backwards concept, and over time I have created several different parts which I use as short-cuts to make the process more specific and easier.

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  8. I have an interesting situation develop between two of my characters when Fenris stumbles over a dead body. He knows right away that the people in that city will blame his father, Loki because Loki is the only enemy of the city still living. Loki is imprisoned and completely helpless at that moment and Fenris realizes that if he does not break his father out, Loki is going to be lynched. Fenris hates his father but has spent all of his life being blamed for crimes he never committed and cannot stand the thought that his father would die for a murder he could not have committed. Fenris breaks him out and, because Loki is too wounded to survive on his own, goes on the run with him.

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