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

Other character building posts.

Who are you again?

Snoopy McSnooperson

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Climbing

Round vs. flat

Characters are an important part of every story. They are the vehicles to which the story rides.

The diversity of characters in a story should be great. No one character should be exactly like another. (Unless they are meant to be)  I mentioned Dynamic vs. Static characters. Within either of those groups lies another option. Round vs. Flat.

Rounded characters are full, interesting and often multi-layered in their approach. Regardless of the complication or lack of in a character I keep track of them in detail. Consistency is key to character writing.  Rounded doesn’t mean dynamic. Dynamic is changing and evolving(or de-evolving) while rounded means the character has a rich character. Often with a background story that should be reviled in a timely manner within the story. They have emotional depth and react to things and situations. The more rounded a character is the more realistic they feel to the reader.

A rounded character takes time to grow and develop. They need a lot of attention even if they are minor in the story. I like to give minor rounded characters one very distance flaw or quirk. Sometimes they get their own mini side story. For example a character that is picked on my a main character may have a breakdown or a moment of strength. They may impact the main character’s journey but not change it.  Amber picked on Rachel. I let Rachel interact with Amber, Dale and Scott and eventually Rachel stood up for herself just as Amber is starting to question her behavior and life choices. I gave Rachel a back-story, emotional responses, opinions, thoughts and feelings. She reacts to situations but isn’t a key part of them. (See ‘what if’s of imagination’)

Flat characters are the two-dimensional ones. They often have little to no impact on the story. They come and go and are there as a prop for a scene.

Examples of Flat characters
Waiter/Waitress
Counter clerk/sales person
Receptionist/concierge
Co-worker
Relatives
Police officer/fireman/paramedic
Panhandlers/Buskers
Person bumped into on bus, street etc.

Whether they are reoccurring or a one-off flat characters don’t need a lot of attention. I barely give them a presence. A general description if necessary. I don’t go in to detail over what they wear, how they look or act. These people are the cardboard cut-outs and are meant to be. I dislike very much when a flat character gets a full paragraph of introduction then absolutely nothing happens with them. They go nowhere and do nothing.  I don’t care what colour their eyes, hair, skin and clothes are if they have no impact on the story whatsoever.

My advice about flat vs. Round characters.
I often say I write what I like, what I want to read. The same is true for the opposite. Judge carefully who needs depth and who can stay in the background. Two dimensional characters tend to stay that way. If you give them more than you have to make them more.

-Sheryl

Related Posts

 The “What ifs” Of Imagination

Squeaky Clean

Wisely Perpetrating Gullibility

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Timely

Karma. It really is a B*tch

Rumors are a part of life. People gossip, people believe it and others just love to embellish what’s already there out of pure fun. The most powerful kind of rumor are those seeded with truth because they ring true on some level. The more believable the more powerful a rumor can be.

When I write rumors into my stories, I give them a base. A rumor needs something to work from, something that might make them believable. Back story or foreshadowing early on or at least a chapter before the rumors fly. I do this because most rumors start as fact, true or not someone takes that tidbit and runs with it, morphs it and makes it extravagant and tantalizing.

Purposeful rumors are ones set adrift on purpose with a goal in mind. Usually that goal is to hurt someone, tear them down or maybe just make them feel bad in retribution. Sometimes I might write someone telling a rumor with the goal of flushing out the gossipmongers. Since rumors are realistic, they are easy to come up with.

Accidental rumors are the kind that are secrets overheard. They can be the weak-willed telling all with little provocation or someone accidentally blurting it out because they just suck that much.

No matter how you slice it, rumors can cause tension, upset and all kinds of juicy drama. And sometimes, just sometimes rumors are true.

“Karma.” Amber mumbled at the screen. Her frown etched deep on her face. Karma. The word slammed her mind like a battering ram. She deserved this and was only now seeing just how awful she truly is. The words “office slut” kept auto-correcting every time she typed her name. She had no idea how to fix it. She opened her mouth to ask Dale then closed it. Out of curiosity she typed his name and it auto corrected to Baby Daddy. She deleted it, took out her phone and texted Dale asking him to fix it and put a password on her computer.

With shaking hands and a pale face, she opened Scott’s door.
“Did you do it?”
“Do what?” He asked eyes narrowed.
“Did you change my auto-correct?”
He sighed. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. There are rules about messing with other people’s property here and unlike you I abide by them. And honestly, I have better things to do than tease you. I can see how upset you are and you are a friend. I’m not that big a jerk.”
There was enough truth in his eyes for her to believe. “Okay.” She turned to leave.
“But.”
She looked at him sharply.
“Amber the rumors are flying and fast. Who did you tell?”
“I was going to ask you. Only three people know and Dale and I wouldn’t say anything.”
“Like I said, you’re a friend and so is Dale. I respect you two too much to be a total ass. Someone must have overheard us.”

Amber nodded and left his office. He’s petty and selfish but gossip was never his thing. Not really. Snickers and heads turned away a smidge too late. Everywhere. Double glances and covert stares. The office was infested and so fast. Plagues had nothing on this. Her cellphone buzzed and she read the text from Dale. “Fixed. Password is where you told me. WTF? U tell?

She bit her lip and replied. “No. Scott guessed.” She looked at Dale’s response. “He didn’t do this.”
Amber made her way to her desk. Rachael looked at her smugly and Francis barely hid her giggle before turning away. Amber sat at her desk numbly and entered her new password “Russo”. She looked at the ad she was to proof next. It was from Francis on Birth control. Amber looked across the open office as Francis shook her head barely containing her merriment. Karma. It really is a bitch.

Can’t say she didn’t have it coming. Rumors are fun to write and fun to play around with in the wonderful world of my writing. I hate rumors for real they carry too much power and consequence for both ends. This wouldn’t have worked if I hadn’t had Amber picking on Sasha and being horrible in general. To give the rumor credit she needed to be the type of person who a, deserved it and b, is likely to be what they say, the office slut. Even if it’s untrue, she made it likely.

My advice about rumors.
Real world, no. Written world of our make-believe, oh yeah! Get your bully on! Terrorize your characters.

-Sheryl

Other posts

Read, revise and repeat. The shampoo process of editing.

I swear! Or do I?

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Abide

Who’s who in the grand scheme of things

When I create a character such as Sasha, I build them up from the bottom to the top. It’s called backstory From their childhood and any traumas or lack of, all the way through life experiences to their present day. They need moments that define who they are, incidences good, bad and mediocre to sculpt their persona. Coworkers, strangers and friends that come and go or stick around are important. Family however are the most important. Whether they have none or too many members needs to be established. Family shapes who we are and should play a part in my characters life as well.

I create family trees for everyone. How important they are depends on how deep, the roots and branches go. The mains and prominent villains get the biggest trees or the ones with the most details. Each family member has a small bio whether it’s used or not. A vague reference to Uncle William being the family drunken mess could play a big part on my character Sasha’s views and behavior toward drinking. Perhaps he scarred her with a particularly bad episode so is leery of ever getting drunk enough to lose control. Maybe Grandma Jillian was a remarkable woman who struggled through one adversity after another and solidified Sasha’s strength and determination in life. Was it her great uncle, who threw her high in the air scaring her and missing once that caused her fear of falling? It’s important to know who they are and what role they play.

Is it always black and white or set in stone? No, I’ve changed family members to fit the story to led a moment or two to influence Sasha. My point is that without a history, without friends and family influence or lack of a person is empty of life experience. She had a family but her friend Anne didn’t, she grew up alone bouncing from obscure relatives to foster homes. She has issues and they show in her interaction with Sasha. Are they in your face, holy crap she’s damaged interactions? No that’s not realistic. People brood and often hide their feelings only letting shreds out. Mystery is tantalizing and even if its small it will foster the readers interest in the character.

How far do I go back? Usually one generation beyond use(I’ve even gone forward one preparing for the future). If she only ever mentions her Grandparents then I’ll go back to the great grandparents and their children. Not all branches are full or finished if its completely unnecessary. If Sasha’s grandma mentions she had two siblings but I talk about a third that might be noticed. That is why I use family trees. Even for the bad-guys especially if they come in to play even a little. Mine are created in an excel spreadsheet, each member has a description. Height, age, birthday, build, eyes, hair and skin color. Ethnicity and languages they speak and job. A brief bio on their history if necessary. I add to this and edit all the time. Maybe it wasn’t uncle William but Uncle Paul instead. It really depends on how I want to progress the story.

Each tree is important, for each book I have a small forest of trees big and small. For BiaAtlas I have three main family trees and I’m careful to maintain accuracy.

My advice about family trees.
Don’t look at it as a chore. It is the opportunity to build depth into your story and characters. It may or may not be needed but it helps me keep who’s who sorted out and provides a wonderful source for potential drama or character growth.

-Sheryl

Related posts

 What’s her name?

What happened to that guy?

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Tree