Posts Tagged With: storytelling

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

What Makes A Strong Character?

Today you hear a lot about creating strong characters. Specifically creating strong female characters or characters of color (there was a great Freshly Pressed post that talked about this with female characters). When you get down to the bottom of it all, the question is: how do you define a strong character?

As that Freshly Pressed post pointed out, most people look at strong female characters and think of the Buffys, the Katniss Everdeens, the Princess Leias, girls who are great with a weapon and are great at taking down bad guys. And they are strong characters, no doubt about it. But being able to stake a vampire or take down an evil empire does not make for a strong character. If being kick-ass made for strong characters, then all any protagonist would need is a whip or a set of ninja skills and we wouldn’t be having this debate or reading this article.

If you ask me, a strong character doesn’t have to kick down doors or be the greatest swordsman ever seen on the planet. What makes a character strong is not that they have physical strength, but that they are human.

For example, let’s take Zahara Bakur, the main character from my novel Reborn City. Zahara is not trained in any form of martial arts, nor does she have any auperpowers, though she knows several people who do. She’s a kind, peace-loving teenage girl. She’s kind of shy, she identifies herself as a Muslim, she’s more spiritual than religious (though she does follow the laws of Islam as much as she can), and she can’t stand violence. She’s a normal teenage girl…living in a dystopian society where in certain areas Islamaphobia is quite common.

Zahara seems like a real person, not a cliché or a stereotype. And through her experiences in RC, often at times very traumatic, she gains a powerful confidence and inner strength that shine through in the sequel, Video Rage. You see, a strong character is born when a human character goes through experiences that allow the character to show their humanity and at the same time tests it. The strength that follows from that testing, that powerful inner strength that we love seeing in these characters and is what truly makes a strong character.

Would Buffy be as beloved if she just went through vampire after vampire each and every episode and nothing else? No, the reason she is beloved is because we see her grow, make friends and find love, work past her fears and resolve to fight on in a never-ending war. Similarly, although we may look forward each week to a new Wesen on Grimm, what we enjoy most is seeing how protagonist Nick Burkhardt and his friends and family come to terms with the strange world around them and grow through their experiences, allowing themselves to meet the challenges that come their way. The butt-kicking and police action is secondary to the enjoyment of that growth, though the police stuff is fun to see as well.

(I’m really on a binge for shows with supernatural bents right now, aren’t I?)

So with all this in mind, I think the conclusion I’m trying to get to is that for a character to be considered strong, they must first be human, and prove it both to the reader and to themselves through the trials and tribulations they experience in the novel. And just like humans in the real world gain strength from overcoming the challenges that seem almost insurmountable or that test us in every way possible, so do our characters gain the strength that make us fall in love with them.

What do you think make for strong characters? What’s a character you consider a great example of one?

Categories: General Writing, Psychology of Writing & Publishing, The Writer & Author | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Creating A Great Antagonist

The antagonist or antagonists of a story are often the central driving force to the story or what causes the central driving force to come into being. That being said, a lot of thought has to go into creating an antagonist, especially the central antagonist. In fact, for horror novelists such as myself, it’s often one of the first things we come up with in a story, and what we often use to describe our stories to others (ex. “an evil clown demon terrorizes a small town”, “a cult leader with horrifying dark powers and those who stand against him”, “two children fall through a doorway to a world where the demonic ruler has a terrifying interest in the young boy”).*

When designing antagonists (human or otherwise), there are a few things I try to keep in mind in order to make them as evil/terrifying/monstrous as possible. Here’s some of them (the ones I’ve identified, anyway. I’m still new at this and I’m still identifying what I do, what works and what I should probably stop doing):

1. What does your antagonist want? I’m going to use a villain from a hypothetical novel, because I don’t think this is the best place to advertise any of my own books(as fun as that might be). And since I’m watching Once Upon a Time while watching this, I’m going to say…my villain wants to take over the magic kingdom. Why does this villain want to do it? Perhaps he’s a sociopath (I’m going to make it a male villain) who just wants power, mayhem and murder. Perhaps he’s the illegitimate child of the King’s eldest daughter, there was a really bad scandal where they murdered to keep things under wraps and he’s got some mommy issues. Or maybe he’s thinking he’s doing the kingdom a favor by trying to avert a prophecy about the current regime and the destruction about the kingdom, so he’s willing to do some very terrible things to avert disaster. Any of these or even a combination could work. This is also a step where I try to create as much backstory as needed to explain how my villain came to be, though if I need to I can hold that off till much later in the story, when it becomes much more relevant to the story to explain why my villain is so evil and screwed up.

2. What are my villain’s means of getting what he wants? Every villain has a means of getting what they want. Maybe he’s a very dangerous, highly-trained assassin. Perhaps he has magic powers, or a mercenary army with enough magical weapons to do a miniature Chernobyl. It can be anything, as long as you can make it plausible in the universe of your story.

3. Who opposes my villain? I’m going to assume the protagonist. Perhaps it’s the crown prince of the kingdom, who just found out about his elder sister’s illegitimate son and sworn to stop him but bring him back alive for the sake of his sister, who has always regretted letting her child go. Or maybe a knight who wants to protect those close to him by going off to slay the great evil. Perhaps it’d be more interesting to see if an orphan of humble background (or perhaps not; s/he is an orphan, so s/he could have any background I please) could go up against this great threat to the kingdom. In any case, the antagonist needs someone to go up against him, so I have to create that person at some point early on.

And now that we’ve come up with the antagonist’s motives and who’s going to try to stop him. Here comes the fun part of designing the antagonist:

Family values, loves cookies and miniature golf…and he does horrifying magical rituals to become a terrifying demon. What’s not to love?

4. Design your villain’s character. Perhaps my villain will be a full adult, or perhaps a teenager or even a young boy, to drive home that he’s the son of a princess, son being the operative part here. I could give him a dark, sadistic personality. Or maybe he’s like one of my favorite villains, Mayor Wilkins III from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who always had a smile on his face and acted like your typical 1950s sitcom dad even up until the moment he killed you. Maybe he’s got a hobby that indulges in while he’s not busy planning the destruction of the kingdom. Does he actually care for anyone besides himself? Maybe that person would give him someone to interact with besides his despicable followers. All these options and more are at my fingertips, and I can mix and match as I please in designing this villain.

This is basically how I design villains. And it works for all types of villains, from primary to tertiary in importance of plot and in all types of stories. I could also use these steps to design a sultry heiress hell-bent on doing some nasty stuff in LA’s best social circles. Or maybe a company president with some very cruel plans for a Native American community in the Amazon. It even works on zombies and vampires, too.

However you create your antagonists though, if it fulfills your need to create a great villain to go up against your hero or heroine, then it works. I’m just trying to give helpful suggestions, and if these help you, then my job here is done.

Also, if you get inspired by the hypothetical story I created above, by all means write a story about it. I just came up with it on the spot and I have enough on my plate without another story to write. Go ahead. It’s yours.

*Only one of these examples is a story I’ve actually read, and that’s Stephen King’s IT. The other two, if there are stories that are like that, I haven’t heard of them. Let me know if you have.

Categories: Characters & Viewpoints, General Writing, The Writer & Author | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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