Characters & Viewpoints

Backstory isn’t Character

(IMPORTANT NOTE: I will be differentiating character, as in a person, and character, as in aspects of a person, by capitalizing the former and leaving the latter lowercase. So from here on out in this post, Character refers to people, and character refers to qualities of a Character.)

Happy New Year, everyone! I thought I’d start off the New Year with an informative post about something I see a bit too much in fiction: writers mistaking a backstory for character.

In particular, I saw this quite a bit in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which I saw in theaters, and Star Trek Beyond, which I saw on DVD recently (and since not everyone has seen those movies yet but might want to, I’ll keep this spoiler free). Both movies introduce new Characters with really sad backstories: Jyn Urso in Rogue One and Jaylah in Star Trek Beyond. However, these Characters’ films don’t spend a lot of time establishing their characters beyond being exceptionally good warriors and survivors. The most we learn about them is their backstories.

Now, a backstory is important. It tells us where a Character comes from, and can imform certain aspects of their character. However, backstory isn’t the same thing as character. A Character’s character is personality and how Characters react to situations.It’s their interests, their pet peeves, what they look for in friends or romantic partners, and how they change over the course of a story. That’s what authors and critics talk about when they speak of character development and character arcs and character in general.

For example, in one of my novels-in-progress, Laura Horn, the titular character also has a dark backstory. A very traumatic event occurred in her life when she was a kid, and that informs how she interacts with the world around her quite a bit. However, that’s not all there is to her. Laura likes animated movies and musicals, and uses them to de-stress. And even before the dark incident in her life, she was introverted and shy. She didn’t like to put herself out there, and preferred quiet to excitement. And, when it comes to the people around her, once they show her how much they care for her and how kind they are, she will become fiercely loyal and go to great lengths to protect them. That’s character in a Character.

An even better example is the titular character of the TV series Chuck, and its titular character Chuck Bartowski. From pretty early on in the series, we’re told Chuck’s backstory (and this series ended five years ago, so I will go into details). His parents weren’t always around in his life, so he was raised mostly by his older sister. He went to Stanford but his best friend betrayed him, framed him for cheating, and slept with his girlfriend. He was expelled, and moved home, where he started working at a Best Buy parody. But that is not Chuck’s character:

Chuck is a smart guy. He’s an accomplished engineer and programmer, and his smarts often help him in his crazy, espionage-filled life. Chuck enjoys science fiction and other nerdy interests, and will go on for hours with his best friend Morgan. He’s kind and caring, and tries to be optimistic despite how awful life can be sometimes to him, though occasionally he is seized by despair when things go terribly wrong. And although he hates guns and violence, he will go to whatever length necessary to protect his friends and family from trouble. And he tries to be the straight guy in a world where weird stuff is treated normal in his daily life (if you know the show and where Chuck works, you know what I’m talking about). That is Chuck’s character.

And when you have good character, you have a good Character. Chuck is still a much-beloved Character because people identify with him. Even though fans may not share his backstory (I certainly haven’t been expelled because of a friend’s betrayal or had to deal with absent parents), they love that a nerdy guy who tries to be nice to even nasty people and who enjoys all the nerdy things they love is the hero of a TV series, because that’s someone like them.

So how do you know if a Character has a character? Here’s an exercise I came up with before the New Year: pretend the Character is question (I’ll make one up for the sake of the exercise) is someone you know in your daily life, and you meet someone whom you would like to set up with the Character on a blind date. Now, I wouldn’t tell this girl my Character’s backstory, because it would sound something like this:

“Edward was orphaned at a young age. He was nearly killed by soldiers working for a rogue element of the Armed Forces, but the Queen of Hell saved his life and gave him powers because she felt that doing so would work into her plans. He uses his powers to go after the secret group, as well as anyone, human or otherwise, who stands in his way or tries to hurt those close to him.”

If I told someone that, they’d either think I was kidding or insane, or they would run screaming to the nearest convent in the hopes that a nun’s habit would protect them from evil. However, if I were to describe my Character’s character, I’d probably get a much better reception:

“Edward’s a smart dude. He’s always had the best scores in school, he’s been captain of the chess team for three years running. Also pretty rational, proved that our high school wasn’t  haunted when everyone else thought it was. He’s also very loyal and caring. He’s practically raised his sister since they were kids, and I’ve never seen him raise his voice or break a promise. And he tells pretty funny jokes, lots of situational humor. He’s very political, but if you tell him you don’t want to discuss spending on defense or reelection rates in Congress, and he’ll keep quiet.”

Now there’s a Character with character, someone you’d like to date. And this exercise works in all sorts of situations. You can even use it to come up with character traits for your Character and work them into the story.

Backstory is important. No doubt about it. But it’s not everything to a Character. Their character is. Because without it, there’s nothing to identify with, and it makes it harder for readers to continue reading your story. And nobody wants that.

Categories: Characters & Viewpoints, General Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Letting Your Characters be Who They Are (A Deeper Look Into Point of View)

Point of view is one of those tricky subjects we often struggle with as writers.  I know I’ve been trying to get a solid understanding on this since I started seriously writing back in late 2007.  Just the other day while I was reading one of my children’s newsletters from school, I came across something that gave me an “a-ha!” moment.

idea for blog post

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(You know you’re a writer when you read something totally unrelated to writing and make it relevant to writing.) 😀

So anyway, this tidbit in the newsletter was about student behavior.  Here’s the gist of it…

An event happens.  The event in itself is neutral.  BUT it is the person’s perception of the event that influences their behavior.

And that’s when the lightbulb lit up above my head.  So what did I do?  I did the first thing any writer trying to come up with a blog post topic would do.  I made notes on what I wanted to write for this post.

Recently, I was having a conversation with a good friend (and fellow writer) who was getting stuck in her story.  Her character wasn’t doing or saying the things she would say and do.  That being the case, she didn’t know how to proceed with the scene.

That got me thinking.  How many times do we impose our own mentalities onto our characters instead of letting the characters be who they really are?  Our job as writers is to tell the character’s story.  It is their story, not ours.  If we want to tell our own story, we need to write an autobiography.  If we want to do fiction, we need to let the character tell his or her own story in the way they want.

So when we’re writing, I think we’d be better off putting ourselves in the character’s shoes.  See things through the character’s eyes.  Take into consideration the character’s background, religious (or lack of) convictions, prejudices (we all have them), hopes, and goals.  When an event in the story happens, we need to perceive that event through the character’s point of view.

Your job as the writer is to step aside and let the character believe what they want about the event, regardless of whether or not they are right.  Misunderstandings about something can be a great way of opening conflict in a story.  How often have you heard one side of the story and then learned the other side?  How often would you say two opposing viewpoints both had valid points after you listened to each person tell you what they think?

It’s no different with characters.  One character might see an event in a very positive light while another might think it’s the worst thing that has ever happened.  That is fine.  Go with it.  Let the character with the point of view have that perception. And when that character has perceived it in a certain way, have him react to it based on his personality.

blog post on character and point of view

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When I was in high school, I was in a play, and to this day, I remember the director (aka drama teacher) saying, “Good acting is reacting.” In the same way, good writing is allowing the character to react in a way that makes sense for him, given his history, baggage, prejudices, etc, to react.  The character might change eventually or might not.  But either way, that character has a right to react to an event that makes the best sense to that character.

For example, a character who has spent his childhood hiding from bullies isn’t likely to react bravely to someone who threatens him.  He will need to build himself up and overcome that tendency to run off before his is ready to confront the person threatening him.  It won’t happen overnight.  That’s where personal growth and struggle can come in for the character.

Even if you, as the author, face challenges head on and tackle them right away, your character might not be the same way.  It’s okay for your character to be different from you.  In fact, I think it’s great if you experiment with different personality types when you’re writing.  Too many times we try to impose who we are on the characters, and this can be very limiting.

Think about it.  If you write the same type of characters all the time, how different will your stories really be?  There are only so many plots available.  It’s how the characters react to the events (aka plots) that make the story unique.

You might get feedback from a reader who says, “I hated that character.  I never would have done (fill in the blank).”  The reader has every right to hate the character because the character didn’t live up to the reader’s expectations (based on the reader’s background, personality type, etc).  But does that mean the character was wrong to do what the character did?  Absolutely not.  The character has his own way of looking at the world, and this particular way of looking at the world just happens to be at odds with the reader’s way of looking at the world.

Remember: you will NEVER please EVERYONE.  So don’t even waste your time trying.  It’s okay to have haters on your book.  It doesn’t mean you’re a failure as a writer.  It just means your book isn’t that reader’s cup of tea.  Books, just like points of view, are subjective.

Back to the post:

Think about real life.  We all have our own point of view on everything that happens around us.  We react to these events based on our point of view.  Another person we know will have a different point of view and react differently than we do.  It’s normal.  Life would be boring if we were all the same.

So embrace these differences when you’re writing.  Give your character the freedom to be his own person.  Even if that character is different from you, let him react to things that are appropriate for him.  I think it will help you develop more well-rounded and meaningful characters if you embrace differences instead of trying to fight them.

Categories: Characters & Viewpoints, General Writing, storytelling | Tags:

The Emotionally Engaging Character: The Key to Telling a Compelling Story

A compelling story is one which grabs the reader and doesn’t let go.  It makes it difficult for the reader to put down so they can do something else, and when the reader does put it down, the reader is often thinking about the story and anxious to get back to it.  These are books that readers remember long after they read the book.  The reason for this is because they connected with the characters in the book on an emotional level.  The character’s journey became their journey.

Telling a story is one thing.  The basic structure involves normal life, a desire for something, a conflict that prevents the character from getting it, a climax, and a resolution.  The bare bones of every story isn’t exciting.  What makes the story exciting is the character who embarks on this journey from where they were in the beginning to where they’ll be at the end.

If the character is emotionally engaging, the reader will experience everything the character does.  If the character is anxious, the reader will get anxious.  If the character is laughing, the reader should at least be smiling.  The reader is going to forget they’re reading the book and become so engulfed in the story that they become the character.  When this happens, the story is compelling.

So how does someone create an emotionally engaging character?

1.  Let the character guide the story.

Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, the character can lead you as you write your story.  This is where you let the character tell you where to go instead of telling the character what he is going to do.  If you feel like the story is going in a different way than what you expected, let it.  This is a cue the character is letting you know the character wants something else.

2.  If the story stalls, chances are likely the story is going in a direction that isn’t right for the character.

I used to think when my writing stalled, I needed to press through it because I was bored of the story or simply tired.  After several times of pushing through and realizing about 10-15,000 words later I had messed up the story, I’ve learned the reason the story stalled was because I was forcing it to go in a way the character didn’t want.

Sometimes you have to take a break from the story and work on something else.  When you stall, that’s the best way I’ve found to deal with it.  Forcing it seems to only make things worse.  But when I work on something else, it frees my subconscious mind to work through whatever issue was making my story go in the wrong direction.  Then, one day when I’m not expecting it, the answer will come to me.  This is when the character is back in the driver’s seat, and I’ve gotten back on board again.

3.  Focus only on the characters whose point of view you’re giving.

I don’t recommend doing more than a couple characters’ points of view.  Pick the main ones and only do those, unless you’re only sticking in one point of view through the entire book.  Trying to cram in too many points of view will dilute the power of your story.  I typically do two points of view, though I have done up to four.  I do three or four sparingly, though.  For your reader to best connect with a character, they need to spend most of their time in that character’s point of view.  So pick the main one or two you need and make the story revolve around them.  If you do another point of view, do is sparingly and only when you need it to be the most effective.

4.  Be open to a wide range of emotions.

In order for your character to be emotionally engaging, you have to feel emotions–and feel them deeply.  Don’t be afraid of them.  A writer needs to be intimately connected to their feelings if they are going to create characters the reader can get engaged in.   The best characters are the ones that make the readers feel.  You can’t create those kind of characters if you don’t engage with your own feelings.

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A compelling story is one that will be remembered because of how it made the reader feel.  And along this line of thought, I want to close with this quote by Maya Angelou: “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”  So when you write, make your reader feel something they’ll remember long after they finish the book.

Categories: Characters & Viewpoints, storytelling | Tags:

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