Posts Tagged With: characters

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: , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

How to Deal with Idea Fragments

Imagine JK Rowling never thought of Harry Potter (I know, scary thought, but bear with me), and that you just had the idea for a boy wizard. You recognize that the story could be good. Very good, in fact. The question is, what else do you include? What does your boy wizard do? What is his world like? What makes him special enough to follow around? Obviously in the coming months you’ll come up with Hogwarts and Voldemort and all the other relevant characters and details, but until then Harry’s not really an idea but an idea fragment.

Is there a difference? Yes there is, at least how I write. To me, an idea has a bit more meat on it, like a summary or a prompt. You got this, and you can move forward coming up with all the details based on this little information. Using the Harry Potter example:

Harry is a boy who finds out he’s a wizard, and that when he was a baby, he defeated the greatest Dark wizard of all time. He goes to Hogwarts School to learn magic, and there his destiny begins to emerge.

Now in idea fragment form:

Harry is a boy wizard. That’s all I got so far.

See the difference? It’s just part of a summary. You can’t move forward without knowing a bit more, without deciding what direction you plan to go with Harry. That’s an idea fragment. And we all have them from time to time. Heck, I’m struggling with more than a couple right now. I know that with a bit of development they could be great ideas for stories, but until I add a few more details, I can’t write them down on any of my idea lists. And that makes them annoyances that you work desperately to make into full-fledged ideas. Which can be maddeningly difficult sometimes.

So in order to aid you with these fragments while you have them, here are some tips to develop them into full ideas:

  • First, write them down. Nothing is more infuriating than an idea you forget before you can find some way to make sure you don’t forget it (which is why I keep several lists for ideas and thoughts on my stories). While I’ve found losing idea fragments just to be slightly annoying–as far as I’m concerned, it’s just going back into the sea of the subconscious, to bubble up gain someday and maybe as an idea–it’s still good to write them down so they don’t slip your mind. Writing information down has actually been shown to help commit it to memory, so you’re making sure you don’t forget these possible great ideas-to-be.
  • Don’t stress on trying to turn them into ideas. You can spend your time turning over the fragments in your head, trying to do so until you’re frustrated will not help you come up with an idea. If anything, it’ll just keep you up at night and ruin your mood in the morning. So if you start getting frustrated with a fragment, here’s what you should do:
  • Take a break and distract yourself. Watch some Netflix. Read a book, especially if it’s in a genre or on a subject you’re not entirely familiar with. Go hang out with friends and talk about anything but the fragments. Dive into work, or another writing project, or your family, or whatever. When you come back to it, you’ll be a little refreshed and maybe also armed with new information or experiences to add to your potential idea. And psychology also shows that distracting yourself while trying to solve a problem actually leads to ways to solving it (there’s an episode of The Big Bang Theory, “The Einstein Approximation”, that illustrates this very well). So distract yourself. You never know what you might find.
  • Use a generator site. Idea generator, random word generator, story prompt generator, story plot generator, whatever generator. Do a Google search, you’ll find plenty of them. Each varies in what sort or how many parameters they require, and what sort of prompts they give as a result, but if you’re really stuck with some fragments, one of these sites might really be able to help. The downside is that some of the suggestions they give can be really silly sometimes (I tried a horror-themed one, and it gave me some odd plot summaries), while others ask for so many parameters you’re like, “If I knew all this, why would I need to be on this site?” Also, some people may feel that these sites are cheating or really lame last resorts, but it only matters if you think that.

While working on this article, an idea fragment I’d been struggling with for about two weeks finally became an idea. It helped that I was listening to a Stephen King audio book and that I read an article about a recent police operation leading to a huge arrest, helping me to think of something for the characters I had in my head whom I had no idea what to do with. So while these fragments can be a source of frustration, eventually they can become great ideas.

What tips do you have for figuring out idea fragments?

Categories: General Writing, Psychology of Writing & Publishing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Avoiding the Info-Dump

I graduated from college back in May after a very busy senior year, during which I was fortunate enough to not only do a senior thesis, but to do a novel that I really wanted to write as a senior thesis and get excellent feedback from my advisor and a fellow senior. Around April my advisor, a creative writing professor with quite a few books published, my second reader, a favorite teacher of mine who was as much a nerd and an even bigger science-fiction enthusiast than I am, and I met for my thesis discussion, where we’d go over the progress of my novel and where I would go for the third draft once I got around to that.

While they generally liked my story, which is titled Rose, they had a number of very good suggestions on ways to make it better. One of the suggestions, and something that I hadn’t even considered, was that a lot of the information received about my antagonist came in three big bursts over the course of the story. They suggested that maybe I should space out when such information was given, and maybe vary my sources. In fact, they pointed out that one character seemed to be there only just to dole out information about the antagonist. He didn’t really serve any purpose beyond that.

This stunned me. And you know what else? I realized they were right. I was doing a lot of info-dumping in this story, and that it was actually working against the story I was trying to tell. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about ways to avoid info-dumping in this and future stories, and I thought I’d share some of those tips with you.

But first, what exactly is an info-dump? It’s when a huge amount of information is deposited in a single place. In fiction, it’s like exposition, only it’s too much exposition. Think of it like this: if any of you watch Once Upon a Time, you know that flashbacks are a big part of the show and that the writers take care to reveal new facts over time, peeling away layers so that there’s always a bit of mystery left in the characters you think you know very well. Now imagine in one episode they took all the backstory of a single character and reveal it all at once? That’s so much information, it’d make for a five-hundred page biography! And all in the course of forty-two minutes. You’d be overwhelmed. That there is an info-dump, and it’s something writers should take pains to avoid.

So how do you avoid the info-dump?

The key is to space out the information you reveal. Don’t reveal everything about a character, a place, or an object all at once. Instead make sure it happens gradually, over a long period of time, and between reveals make sure there’s time for the characters to do other stuff and for the reader to focus their attention on other aspects of the story. After all, between flashbacks on Once Upon a Time, there’s still evil witches or monsters or manipulative adolescents to deal with.

Another good tip is to make the information come from multiple sources. Look at Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. How do we find out about him, who he is, where he came from and what he did? Well, we find all that out over time, but we also find out about him from many different sources. We first learn his name and the night he disappeared from Hagrid in the first book. We later find out what happened to him after his defeat from the villain himself at the book’s climax. In the second book we find out about his life as Tom Riddle and a hint at his political views from the piece of his soul in the diary, in the fourth book we find out how he came back to power when he tells it to his followers, in the fifth book we find out about the prophecy from Dumbledore, and our information is completed when we find about him from the flashbacks Dumbledore provides us in the sixth book.

But how do you decide when information is to be revealed? Well, that’s for you as the author to decide, but info should come when it fits or works for the story. Back to Harry Potter for a second. There’s obviously a lot of information about the Wizarding World. So much, that not all of it was revealed in the books and JK Rowling is still giving out snippets of information to us through a variety of sources. Wisely, she only gave out information when it was relevant. Would it have really have helped us, the reader, to know about goblins’ attitudes towards wizards keeping their works in the first book? It would’ve been interesting to know, but it wouldn’t have mattered much to the story at that point. And while we wondered if Hogwarts was the only school for magic in the world, the existence of other schools was only revealed in Book 4 because other schools were a big part of the story. In a similar, you should only reveal information when it’s relevant to the story you’re telling.

Another thing to keep in mind, especially in terms of characters, is we should already feel we know and have an opinion about someone or something before the information is revealed. In one of my favorite anime, Code Geass, we get to know one of the main characters early on, not through the info given to us about his past, but by his personality and actions. We get to know that he is kind, selfless, and will gladly put his life on the line for others, even when it doesn’t make sense to do so. It isn’t until halfway through the first season that we find out the incident in his childhood that made him this way, but by that time we already have a very positive and sympathetic view of this character and the info reveal does surprise us, but doesn’t color our opinion of the character as much as it would’ve if we’d learned that piece of information at the very beginning of the series.

Another great example is Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s Misery. Early on we don’t know much about Annie besides what she chooses to reveal, and we can’t even rely on that. Why should we? She’s nuts! She’s violent, obsessive, and can switch from sweet to scary at the drop of a hat. By the time we find her scrapbook later in the book, we already know her and how we feel about her. The info in the scrapbook is certainly revealing, but it only adds to our dislike of the character. It isn’t what we base that dislike on.

There’s more I could say about avoiding info-dumps, but that’s a very long article to write. Let’s just finish it by saying that learning to avoid giving out way too much information is something we earn through time and practice. With experience, great tips, and a good bunch of people around you, we learn how to do it while still telling the excellent stories we want to tell.

All that and more will certainly help me when I get around to the next draft of Rose. I’m looking forward to seeing how that turns out when all is said and done!

What tips do you have for avoiding info-dumps? How have they worked out for you?

Categories: Editing & Rewriting, General Writing, storytelling | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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