Backstory – What is it?

In the beginning photo

 

I’ve been musing over this recently, and I think a lot of confusion comes with knowing what’s backstory, and where our stories actually should begin. It’s something I am constantly struggling with – where is the start of my story?

I think I found a clue!

Our characters are people, first and foremost. Therefore they will, like all of us, have a history. But whereas we live the whole of our lives, we do not necessarily write the whole of our characters’ lives, and our readers certainly don’t. We write only a portion.

Which portion?

In the beginning photo

Usually that which sees the character go on a journey. The journey may be a literal journey – such as in The Lord of the Rings, where Frodo must travel to Mordor (by going on a literal journey he also goes on an emotional journey). The journey maybe simply an emotional journey – like the death of a loved one; or a change in the character’s status – single to married, eg.

Whatever the journey is, the start of the story is not where the journey begins but just before. We need to show the character in their normal environment, in their status quo emotional state. We need to build empathy in the reader, curiosity, and hook them into wanting to find out what happens to change their state, and whether they survive. Normal, everyday situations that show their character as it is, and hint at the changes that must come, or even an unusual situation that nudges the main character (mc) in the direction of the journey they must take.

Some people go on a life-changing journey, or trip around the world. It is vital that we know who they were, so we can understand who they have become.

airport photo

If the mc is at the airport, about to go on a life-changing holiday, then we can show an event that reveals that character as they are, before they need to change. So, if our character is reserved, sometimes gets pushed around, we can show that by having someone bump into her and not apologise. How does she react? Does she ignore what happened? If she is reserved, she may well do. As a reader we want to see her come out if that and stand up for herself and that’s what piques our curiosity. However, you can see that how she reacts now is key in understanding both who she is now, and who she must become.

Why is she reserved? Why does she not stand up for herself? These are questions then raised in the reader’s mind and they read on to find the answers. Does the reader need to know the answers now? No. And, they don’t necessarily want the answers immediately.

Having shown the mc as he/she is, we can then say that backstory is everything that has shaped the character to be who he/she is today, when the story begins.

So when will the reader want the answers?

That is the question, and it’s not easy to answer. There will be times when the character’s actions will need explaining.

 

Pride and Prejudice photo
Photo by The British Library

 

In Pride and Prejudice, Mr Darcy acts cold and arrogant – particularly towards Wickham, which angers Lizzy and cause her to resent Darcy, but we don’t find out why Darcy is cold until much later in the book. We have hints at what happened and these come from Mr Wickham himself. By this time, the reader suspects Wickham is not what he seems, but Lizzy does not. The reader wants Darcy to be the hero, Lizzy wants Wickham.

 

Pride and Prejudice photo
Photo by The British Library

 

We don’t discover the true history between him and Mr Wickham until the letter which explains much of why Darcy behaves the way he does towards Wickham.

So, we see that the reader goes on the journey with the mc, but at some point, we can see more than they can, and then comes the tension of when will the mc find out…

Darcy and Wickham’s backstories are only revealed at certain times in the book, and we certainly do not know everything about them, only the important events that have shaped them into the characters they are today.

Your important event that shaped your character might be an almighty one, like the murder of their spouse. Sometimes people choose to show these in a prologue, since they are huge and interesting and ‘hooky’, yet are still a part of the backstory to show who the character is before they must change. Perhaps the murder of their spouse sends them into a spiral of gambling and other issues. Perhaps it’s depression. What the reader wants to see is how the character gets out of this, how he conquers his demons.

The mc might be in a completely ordinary situation – like Bilbo Baggins celebrating his birthday in The Hobbit.

So what is backstory?

The events, upbringing, family issues, etc, that have shaped that character to be who they are at the start of the story. Who they are at the start of their emotional upheaval. To know where we are going, we must know where we have come from.

Also bear in mind that a novel may not start with the status quo of the mc, but of the antagonist – a murderer, for example. In Lisa Jackson’s Cold Blooded, she begins with a prologue showing the murderer hunting. This raises questions – who is he hunting and why, and why is he a murderer?

Backstory isn’t just the prerogative of the mc, either …

Who is your character at the start of the journey? What shaped their characters?

Also, if we know all of this, our characters will be far more rounded as people. It’s worth putting the time in to discover backstory, even if we don’t use it in the novel.

Just some thoughts,

Louise

 

 

 

Finding the Start to your Story

In the beginning

Finding the beginning to a story can be like trying to find anything in a large handbag (purse, for readers in the US:D). Nigh on impossible. I have a large, pink leather bag which I love, but can never find anything in, and I can often be found at the checkout in shops looking utterly panicked as I frantically search for my wallet.

I am just as hopeless at finding the beginning of my stories. With my current novel I began at what I thought was the inciting incident, only to discover that I was writing lots of flashbacks – and even one flashback within a flashback. At that point I rested my hands from the keys and wondered if I had started in the right place.

No, according to my wonderful critiquers who thought a flashback within a flashback was, well, too much.

Now, I quite liked the idea of keeping the flashback within the flashback, and persisted stubbornly until I realised that I had started the novel half way through and I needed to find the beginning.

beginning photo

So I opened a new page and began at where I thought the new beginning was. Lo and behold, it wasn’t there. I was wrong. Again. I had to travel further back in time.

time travel  photo

In the last few days I have finally realised where this novel begins, and I feel good about this beginning. Know why? It starts at the beginning!

It might sound obvious to start at the beginning but it’s not always easy to know where that is. You might think you have your inciting incident. However, is that inciting incident you’re writing the original one, or one in a long stream of incidents incited by an action?

The key is not to over-think it. A blank page can stare back at you, intimidating in its purity, demanding perfect prose and complex characters. You want that first sentence to be the best you have written so far, you want it to set you on a path to the perfect novel. Except, we all know that most of the time that first sentence will be re-written at least a thousand times, erased a few hundred times and then, if you’re like me, that first sentence won’t actually turn out to be the first sentence after all.

If you don’t know where your beginning is, don’t worry. Instead, think about what’s going through your head. A scene? A fragment of dialogue? Do you have a picture that needs describing? Start there, and see where it leads. Who cares if it’s not the beginning? Very often it’s not until we get to the end that we know how the novel must begin anyway.

Interview Your Characters? Why?

56201fb143a907c6_150_interviews

I know people interview their characters to find out details about them, and in many ways these interviews can provide information that adds flavour to the character, but, in my humble opinion, they do not add depth. This post takes a look at that.

So what kind of questions do they recommend you ask?

 

Well, these:

What is your character’s name? Does the character have a nickname?

What is your characters hair color? Eye color?

Or:

Where does your character go when he’s angry?

angry photo

What is her biggest fear? Who has she told this to? Who would she never tell this to? Why?

Does she have a secret?

Or:

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

What is your current state of mind?

What is your favorite occupation?

What is your most treasured possession?

What or who is the greatest love of your life?

love  photo

What is your favorite journey?

What is your most marked characteristic?

When and where were you the happiest?

What is it that you most dislike?

What is your greatest fear?

What is your greatest extravagance?

Which living person do you most despise?

 

These sorts of questions are all fascinating and provide great details, but do they show real character?

I’m not so sure.

In an interview we like to present the best facets of ourselves possible, and we even exaggerate our good points if we think it will produce the result we want. What prevents our characters from doing exactly the same?

We could ask our character these questions and think we know them, then when we start to write we discover that, actually, we still know very little about them.

If you were asked all these questions can you say you would answer each one truthfully? Would your character?

If you had a character who was a compulsive liar, these questions would be no good at all. If you had a character whose opinion of themselves was vastly different to that of other characters, how does interviewing them help? It may reveal their opinion of themselves, but will it also reveal what they think deep down?

These questions might reveal what the character thinks they might do in certain situations, or what the character thinks they know, but how many of us know what we would do in any given situation until we are in that situation?

Most of these questions seem to be aimed at discovering the person/character rather than developing the character.

It might be a good idea to start with such a questionnaire to discover a character, but how do we then develop them? Or find out how their answers to these questions affect them in ‘life’?

There is only one way.

Put them in situations where they are forced to make a decision, for good or bad. Put them in situations that will test their courage, test their emotional responses, test their fears.

Even if these situations and scenes are not used in the final draft, you have learned something about your character you didn’t know before. They have new depth.

 

What do you think? Have character interviews helped you, and in what way?

 

 

How Important Are Emotions When Driving A Character?

How important are emotions in driving a character?

(This is something I also posted on the Happy Authors Guild blog. Check it out, there are lots of fabulous posts from many different writers)
I’ve been mulling this over this past week and had a few thoughts. Feel free to disagree, this is just what was going through my head:)
There are many driving forces behind a character’s behaviour. Needs. Wants. Desires. Revenge. Behind these, either tagging along like cans tied to a newlyweds car or compressing a person until they feel like they will explode, are emotions.

The first three (needs, wants, desires) are often stepping stones into the depth of emotion a person will attach to one of these. For example, the desire to share your life with someone can morph into a want, which then changes to a need. The initial desire comes with the feeling that it would be nice, pleasant, normal. If the desire goes unfulfilled, then the emotions deepen. If the ‘want’ goes unfulfilled, emotions go deeper, and often start to deceive us. A character can think, ‘Why am I the only one not married? Why am I the only one struggling financially?’ It’s easy to slip into thoughts that slowly lead down into a maelstrom of self-pity, anger, depression and fear. (At this point, can I just clarify that not everyone is like this, but it can help to see where a character can go emotionally due to an unfulfilled need.)

Need is often associated with desperation and fear. If I don’t have shelter I may die of cold. If I don’t have enough to eat I will starve. If I don’t find someone to love me I will stay alone. Suffer alone. Age alone. Die alone. If a person cannot meet their own needs, then helplessness, hopelessness and depression can follow.

Want (when not a ‘need’) can be associated with selfishness and inconsideration of others, an assumption that others don’t matter. Some people want to be rich, and will do anything to achieve that – even if it means stamping others down.

Desires can take many forms. In romance novels, sexual desires can often be the main driving force (at first) behind a character. In a thriller, the detective will have the desire to catch a thief or a murderer. When this desire is unfulfilled, then it becomes a want, a need. The passion behind increases, the driving force impels the character to perhaps take more risks.

So emotions drive us in many ways.

Consider yourself. When you wake up in the morning how do you feel? Tired? Buzzing? Still upset at something someone said yesterday? Still slightly drunk???

I know when I wake up tired it colours my whole day a darker shade of whatever hue I feel. Our emotions and reactions colour the way we think and act, likewise with our characters. If some trauma happened when a character was young, that will affect almost everything about them. Even if they shut it out, the fact that they have shut down a part of them means a part of them is missing, regardless how broken up that part is. When does a character learn fear? Love? Consequences of various actions?

In the current medieval novel I am working on, I have a sixteen year old girl who had a traumatic experience when she was about 9. She has shut this out, yet occasionally has nightmares. I have struggled with her character because it isn’t rounded. Part of her is hidden from me, and until she comes to terms with what happened and is willing to remember, it will stay hidden. She has fears, and anxieties which come from this hidden place and these affect her, yet her emotions are dampened because she pushes them down. So it has been difficult to write from her pov, and the novel has turned into one more about her mother while Annie remembers. When she has remembered, she will be much rounder; I will be better able to write her because I know where she is coming from.

Do you know what your characters are feeling in every scene? Do you ‘soul-hop’? I find if I know what a character is feeling, then the dialogue and actions flow easily and naturally. If I don’t know, then everything feels stilted and awkward.

Experiences affect characters differently. One might shrug off an insult, another might take a swing. Another might bear a grudge and nurse it until the tree of bitterness bears the fruit of hatred. Yet all will then adjust their behaviour accordingly. The one who shrugs the insult off may well avoid that person. The one who takes a swing might end up in jail; the one who nurses a grudge may end up sinking into paranoia. A seemingly insignificant detail can end up having pond-wide ripples, which is why, for me, it’s so important knowing how they feel. If I can identify with my own characters, then I have the hope readers will, too.

 

What do you think? How important are emotions in driving your characters? What do your characters first desire, then want, then need? Is the carrot that is being dangled before them always out of reach, or can they take a bite every now and then, thus increasing the fervency with which they seek more?

 

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Writers – What Kind Of Pants Do You Wear?

I have always been a pantser.

My first novel, The Traitor’s Legacy, was pantsed and my second is too. However, it takes me an inordinate amount of time to actually get a novel written, and I have started to wonder if this is because I write by the seat of my pants. I mean, can I keep blaming my two lively boys and the housework and my Proofreading course? (Yes, of course I can, but there must be something else since I use all of these to procrastinate). Sometimes it takes a while for the characters to tell me what they are doing. Sometimes, horrors, I get stuck, or my characters do nothing for a while, and I wonder if plotters suffer similar issues.

If I plotted a novel, then I could write a scene a day. I may even write a novel in 45 days a la Nora Roberts. I could write five or six novels a year! Except, I know I would get half way through a scene and yawn with boredom,since I know what’s coming next. With pantsing I never know, and that’s fun. But not knowing, can sometimes mean Not Ever Knowing. Ha. And this is where a combination of plotting and pantsing can have the edge. Plot the main arc, but let your characters lead in the scenes.

I hit on a brilliant way of kick-starting a novel again. Wake up in the middle of the night and let your imagination run wild with your characters. They will do things you never intended, or thought of. For example, my hero is going to put my heroine in a dungeon and leave her there. I would never have thought of this as the next step in months of plotting, yet this is the next logical step for the hero, and utterly in character.

So… what kind of pants do you wear? Control briefs (i.e. needing a lot of plotting aid)? Hipsters (i.e. some plotting, but the lace indicates a racy edge)? Tangas (flirt with the idea of having very little plotting)? Or, g-strings (i.e. very flimsy plotting control)?

I do normally have the flimsiest plotting control, but am toying with the idea of plotting out a series of short stories. This could be fun, I am thinking, because, well, how much lace would I like? How much elastic? How much sheer fabric?

I have always been a sworn g-string pantser but maybe, just maybe, those control briefs might be comfortable, might even (horrors) fit me better.

 

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