Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Back of Characters

Since the INK meeting, I've been thinking a great deal about character backstory. And I've finally realized what's been missing in my own character conceptualization.

Most of the 'how to write a novel' books on the market include handy lists for conceptualizing a character's backstory. Carole has the epitome of character concept worksheets, and while many writers find this sort of things useful, I've always balked at it. Yes, I, the lover of All Things List, balked. And now I understand why.

These lists encourage the consideration of things like dress code, political alignment, funky quirks, level of education, pet peeves, that sort of thing. But where, in all of these helpful lists, is it said how to use this information in your novel. How do you condense pages of character concept into a walking, talking character partaking of your plot? They don't, because they aren't really a character's back Story. They lack the very definition of story: Conflict, Resolution, Outcome.

For me, everything about a character's backstory should be setting up the hows and whys a character is involved in the plot of the novel. Why do they make the choices they make? (Because such and such happened when they were seven) Why do they trust the people they do? (Because so and so is like that kindly aunt who helped raise them)

Knowing all that other information is just character dressing. It isn't actually in depth character analysis. Even running a character through a personality test, like Myers-Briggs, will only get you so far. Those are too general. A good place to start, but not where to end.

The backstory needs to be the character's mold, or the long garden path full of sunshine and rain, bramble and roses, they followed to reach the events in the novel. It's a building of the character to be in the right place and in the right frame of mind (even if it all goes horribly wrong--as good plots often do) to be THE character of the story.

Realizing this lack has made me realize what I've been missing in Jamesina's character (from the Reven book Kami and I are co-writing). I have a few sketchy events from her past (her mother's death, her father and brother's falling out, her taking up her brother's place in the hospital), but I have nothing that has had a real effect and impact on the formation of her character, and so she hasn't built a strong enough character, based on past conflicts and resolutions (good and bad) that have made her who she is when the story takes place. The entire point of backstory is missing, and so her character is shallow and thinly motivated.

This week, I'm going to be writing some of those missing conflicts out. Give her a real past that has teeth and has both bitten her and bitten others around her. Who knows what she'll be like on the other side of those small stories that will never see the light of day, but I do know she'll have far more depth than the pale, tepid thing that's trying to keep up with the story now.

And that's another point about backstory. It's backstory. It may never come out in the course of the Real Story (and often it shouldn't), but it is necessary foundation. It has to be there, just like the setting and plot have to be there. Like Ragu: It'sa in there!

1 comment:

Kami said...

Hear hear! I'm glad you picked her to work on, for selfish reasons. I look forward to meeting Jame, in a way, for the first time.