What’s Your Story?

Back-story. Background Story, History, Origin story, whatever you want to call it, it is what makes a character who they are before the story started. How important is it to create back-story for characters? Without history and experience a person is pretty dull and can become unbelievable.  Even if a back-story never makes it directly into the manuscript it’s important for it to be there.

A character may be a jerk, but why? Why is it important as the writer to know where a character came from?

To illustrate easily let me ask you… What’s your story? What makes you… you? Everyone has one and this should be true to wrting as well. Writing a generalized jerk is okay, but one that picks specifically on red heads and girls with freckles might have a deeper reason for doing so. That doesn’t mean I have to even mention the reason just that the character only ever picks on those two types.

There are several types of back-story. Here are some that I’ve used.

Influential –

The type that defines a person. For example Jill and Jane were raised in an extremely abusive household. Jill grew up fighting against domestic violence and has a tender caring heart, while Jane internalized and let the situation take seed. She now abuses her daughter and husband and has developed a dependency on alcohol and prescription drugs to cope. Not every situation has to have the same impact on a person. In this case I would have Jill actively speak out against any form of violence or bullying. Jane might be the one that causes all the strife in Jill’s life.

Small –

A minor character or even major one may have an issue with mustard. Perhaps they were forced to eat it as a child and sat crying at the table for hours until they choked it down.  They may not be actively aggressive or upset about mustard now, but they certainly wont touch it and my even be repulsed by someone who eats it. 

Ongoing –

A back-story that hasn’t quite ended. Someone may have had to care for a sick relative and has reached their limit. They are still caring for said relative but the manuscript picks up middle to end of the care process. This can be a great way to have a character spring-board into their journey. They may have to choose to end said relatives life out of mercy, desperation or loathing. They may love them till their last breath and on their dying words are told something that forever changes their life. This sort of back story would pop up often and easily lead to flashback scenarios. 

Trauma  – 

The back-story that causes major change or a huge shift in a character. A happy-go-lucky person, who is strong and successful is injured or loses everything suddenly. A family is suddenly cut in half by a tragic accident causing the protagonist to question their life. 

Back-story’s go hand in hand with plot devices. For my characters they have a story to tell. Whether its outright and part of the plot or arc, or if it’s subtle and shown in their behaviors, preferences and life choices. If Johnny has no respect for police officers and it gets him in constant trouble, there is a reason.

Keeping track of back-story is very important no matter how small a part they play. I use charts and lists to make sure everyone has a reason for what they do and don’t do. Does this mean a character’s back-story is set in stone? Nope, I’ve added and removed things to suit them and where I want them to go. But it helps to know where they started if I want them to seem real.

Minor/flat/static characters generally have untold back-story. The exhausted overly cheerful hot-dog vendor works 15 hour days to support his dying wife. The crying child climbing the shelves in the supermarket, driving everyone crazy, just lost his father in a plane crash and struggles to cope. Do I mention all those details? No. Probably not.

The Main/Rounded/Dynamic Characters will have their back-story come out at some point or in small doses along the way. They are after all on a journey of growth and change.

My advice about Back-story
Make sure everyone has one. Decide who gets to reveal them and who doesn’t. Keep the minor characters simple and express their back-story by very subtle means. It’s super annoying to be brow beaten by a paragraph delving into the reason Mike the mechanic rips off his customers. Just that he does, is enough.

-Sheryl

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Individual Arcs

I’ve recently explained the main story arc and it’s components. I touched on the smaller arcs within the main story. I thought I’d go a bit further into the little bits that make a story juicy, that make the characters real and seemingly come to life.

The individual story arc.

Each character with purpose in a story should have their own story. The closer to the protagonist or antagonist the characters are; the better the story they should have. Or they should have more influence at least.

This doesn’t mean every character in a story needs a full on arc of their own, that would be dreadful to write (IMO) let alone read.

This can feel daunting to think about but I’ll try to explain how I go about keeping it from becoming overwhelming.

The Main:  Sasha
The Secondary Main : Cal
Sub Characters:
Valery
Anne
Scott
Amber
Dale
Mr. Clifton (Boss)
Baylor (Antagonist)
Mystery character yet to be revealed (Main antagonist)

Sasha and Cal will have the interactive story arc. They are the main characters. Side characters with major influence will get bigger parts to teh story and a much richer story arc. Others will likely just fall within other story arcs as influential but not instrumental.

Sasha

Beginning: Pushover/victim – Gets attacked at work by bully, gets attacked by Baylor
Middle: Baylor pursues her as does another antagonist – she learns to stand up and save herself
End: (This part is not up for discussion yet)

Sub Beginning: Resistant to romantic relationships due to bad experience
Sub Middle: Slowly gives into Cal’s advances 
Sub End: (Cant let you in on that just yet)

Cal 

Beginning: Homicide detective moved to new precinct in search of Baylor
Middle: Keeps Baylor’s recent interest(Sasha) from him, then loses her
End: (A secret)

Sub Beginning: Is interested in Sasha romantically
Sub Middle: pushes her to face her past and move on
Sub End: (Hmm… a secret)

Valery

Beginning: Sasha’s pushy best friend/ boss that nudges her into the dangerous situation
Middle: Provides nervous and worrisome reactions to illustrate the seriousness of Sasha’s situation
End: Helps give big clue to help Cal… (The rest is a secret)

Sub Beginning: party girl with no desire for steady relationship
Sub Middle: Finds a man that keeps her interest and listens to her rant about Sasha being in trouble.
Sub End: (Still a secret)

Scott 

Beginning: Tries to get Sasha to have sex with him constantly
Middle: Gives Sasha a weird vibe. Also picks up on the fact she’s in trouble and helps Valery. Goes off the deep end over Dale and Amber and also Sasha’s rejection.
End:  Causes trouble.

Sub Beginning: He’s up to something
Sub Middle: Jealousy eats him alive. He’s definitely up to something
Sub End: (A secret too)

Baylor

Beginning: Attacks Sasha
Middle: Keeps attacking until he gets her – but is kept from harming her and is forced to hand her over to his boss (who is worse)
End: (This is a secret for now) 

Sub Beginning: na
Sub Middle: na
Sub End: na

I didn’t go through them all, and I didn’t actually give much away.  For my own notes its all filled in but with A LOT more detail. with interactions listed, what they specifically do to influence the story etc.

Now Sometimes I don’t have a sub-plot for a character or they don’t have much impact so they don’t get a lot of face time. Or I haven’t figured out how or if they will impact the story. I have gone back and added situations and scenarios after the story is written. This list is a guideline and not set in stone for me. Sometimes an arc falls flat and needs to be removed or changed to make it work again. For me keeping this stuff straight is just cautionary, I already know what’s going to happen, and sometimes even that can change if I’m inspired. There are times when I have a character that has a purpose but I still need to work them in… if they can fit.  I like to think of my stories as malleable so my mind is always open to possibilities. I often sit and ruminate, playing out what will and will not work.

My advice about individual story arcs.
Super necessary, it is so much more fun to read a story that has the supporting and sub characters actually influencing and interacting in the main arc than for them to be the ‘cheer’ section or the background noise.

-Sheryl

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The Art Of The Arc

Every story has a beginning a middle and an end. They have lots of fun bits in between but essentially they need to follow what is called a story arc.  We’ve been taught story arc in basic form from the first story ever read to us.

There are many ideas on how a story arc should be presented, the most famous and reliable being the hero’s journey. Any quick google search will turn up oodles of examples of what we basically already know.

The arc of a story is to bring purpose and dramatic structure to the story. The guidelines for the reader who need them badly.

Two prominent types exist; the fall from grace and get back up again to succeed or the successful protagonists fall from grace to rediscover what they lost etc. The art of the Arc is in how it is created.

The beginning of the story should be the exact opposite from the end. The beginning or opening scene should establish the protagonists position and toss them into their first crisis or conflict to start the chain of events.

Each following conflict or crisis should be more dramatic, build the tension and progress the story-line without hesitating or going backwards.

As the story reaches climax all pieces should be in place for the final conflict or crisis to make sense and be exciting.

The resolution can be exciting or a slow come down from the high of excitement. It should make sense and fit in with the ultimate goal set out within the first few conflicts.

The end should conclude the story. That doesn’t mean there can’t be hints or set up for following stories, but the main arc of this one should be done. The reader should close the last page feeling satisfied with the conclusion. If a following story was foreshadowed, the reader should be excited for it knowing that the next one will be different yet just as fabulous.

story Arc.jpg

There can be as many crisis/conflicts as I want so long as I keep them pushing the story forward and tension up. There are more than one mini story arc or arc-within-arc going on at any given time. These are the side stories. These can be simple or complicated but are best served if they tie into the main story arc in some way.

Types of side arc’s:

Inter character relationships developing such as romance, friendship, animosity and hate to name a few.

The growth and development of a secondary or tertiary character

The story of the antagonist (I call these the anti-arc since they seem to go backwards-ish)

Soul searching of any kind – re-finding ones faith in whatever they have lost it in

Any form of personal growth or overcoming a tragedy or even overcoming a weakness

I’m sure the idea is clear. When I write side or sub characters I love to give them their own little story to go through. They can be helpful to the protagonist or hinder them. On purpose or by accident.  The options are only bound by the limits of imagination.

There are moments when I think about it too much and it all seems so daunting. Especially when I look at the technical aspects of it all. Then I remind myself I already know how to use an arc I just need to stick to it and make sure the tension goes up in a steady incline.

My advice about story arcs.
Whether the main or sub story, keep them on track so your readers get excited. Regarding the crisis or conflicts, make sure they have purpose to the end. Pointless action will annoy a reader if there is too much of what boils down to nothing of importance. 

-Sheryl

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