About back story: My characters tend to have a lot of it, and I understand that this is a good thing. But I also have trouble /pacing/ it throughout the story so that the reader doesn’t get overwhelmed. And it just feels like I’m doing this: IjustlovemycharactersomuchandIwanttotellyoueverythingaboutthemrightawaysothatyoulovethemtooooooooooo. And yeah, that’s annoying and the reader will probably get a headache. So, do you have any tips for pacing character back story?
When it comes to revealing backstories, I really think that less is more, and I’ll tell you why.
- Realism: Real people (and good characters) are complicated, multilayered, and have been living their own lives prior to when you met them. However, when you first meet someone, do they pour out their life story to you in a Scheherazade-like epic retelling? Not usually. Usually, you get to know them over time, and you learn new things when they come up in the time you spend together. In time, you may even know quite a lot about that person- but it takes time. Knowing about someone’s history, their childhood, and their current life is a mark of trust and a lot of time spent together. I can only claim to know a handful of people as well as you’d normally get to know the protagonist of a book.
In short- there’s a lot about characters and people that you don’t know. Trying to tell your audience ‘the whole story’ about someone will likely only cause you (and your reader) a headache. While they may learn a great deal about the character over the course of the narrative, they’ll learn it better in bits and pieces.
- Relevance to plot: While it’s good to throughly develop a character’s background for your own purposes, when you’re writing, ask yourself: Is this relevant to the story at hand, or would this be something that would be better placed in a prequel about that character (whether you intend to write one or not).
For example: If I’m telling you a story about how Pen and I got chased by a dog, it’s relevant that she’s scared of dogs after one treed her as a child, and would come up in the narrative naturally. It’s irrelevant that I had a bad experience with lemon popsicles as a child, and would feel out of place.
Additionally, your character will probably be developing and changing within the story- so the focus should be on how they’re becoming a different person than who they were in the times of their backstory. People evolve continually, so really, ‘backstory’ is kind of a broad term. Exceptions include purposefully static characters, characters who are caught in the past themselves, and the like.
- Finally, why it’s good to keep readers in the dark just a little bit: Now, I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase ‘show not tell’ approximately 10^23 times by now. But it applies here too! When possible, it really helps to try and demonstrate a character’s backstory, rather than tell it straight. Harking back to Pen and I’s hypothetical dog adventure- if she turns pale when we go by the dog park, the reader can infer that something happened in her past involving dogs. This in many ways is better than flat telling, because a block of telling backstory can be boring, but if you make it just enough of a puzzle, the reader will feel really clever for having figured out something about the character that wasn’t explicitly stated (and we want them to feel clever, it keeps them interesting). From there, you need to decide if the shown not told detail is a segue in to a written explanation, or a noodle incident. Segues are good if you need to do a lil bit of an infodump that’s relevant and important and all that to the plot. The trick is, keep the reader feeling clever. The ideal is that when you reveal that Pen has a crippling fear of dogs since she was five, the reader screams bloody murder about how they called it. When it comes to a noodle incident (a noodle incident being a past event that is frequently brought up, but not properly explained. ie, ‘Budapest’ in Avengers) the first rule is that is that you never explain the noodle incident. Instead,you let the readers draw their own conclusions or make their own theories, as they will almost invariably be disappointed with your answer. Decide which is better or more suited to your story.
some tips for you include:
- Reveal backstory in digestible lil bites
- Reveal those bites when they come up naturally
- Select which details are relevant to the story at hand, and which are irrelevant
- Try to ‘show not tell’ some parts of your character’s history
That’s it, hope it helps!
Characters and Plot
I feel like my characters are pretty developed by themselves. As stand-alone creations, they’re well-rounded and interesting and so on. But in my story, they… have no point. You could throw PacMan or Mel Gibson in their places and still have everything turn out the same. How do I get them to INTERACT with my plot, so to speak? How do I get them to actually have an effect on their world and their world to affect them? [And if this is the wrong blog, could you direct me to one that CAN helpme?]
- Have them make decisions and choices.
- Make their decisions matter.
In other words, base your plot more heavily off of what your characters would do. If they fuck things up and your story lands in a tricky place that you’re not quite sure how to get out of, all the better. So, the next time you’re writing, ask yourself constantly, ‘what would this person do in this situation?’ It should matter which character does what. Everyone should have a motive, and they should act in accordance with their motivations, desires, and fears.
Does that help?
Rebloggable Grief and Mourning
Do you guys have any tips/links on how to write someone/some people grieving or mourning?
Well, everyone deals with grief in different ways. There are some patterns, but it’s been found that dealing with things in different ways is actually the norm. I would recommend not making the people’s reactions too textbook, as that usually feels impersonal and unrealistic. (I learned recently that the traditional ‘five stages of grief’ have been more or less debunked as a thing- which made me unreasonably happy, as I’d been unreasonably angry that that was considered the norm since childhood).
I think the best way to write about someone grieving is to stay really, solidly in character. What does your character do when they are deeply sad? How do they mourn? Also, being able to deal with loss and move on is considered healthy- how emotionally healthy and able to cope are your characters? Your characters will have different reactions and different coping mechanisms, and I think relaying that to the audience is what makes the story feel real. Treat each character as their own person, and figure out what they’ll do based on the person that they are.
Hope that helps!
And here are some links for further reading.
Here’s something from BBC debunking the five stages thing
Mayo Clinic on coping with grief
Coping with people dying from American Cancer Society
Antagonist v. Villain
what’s the difference between a villain and an antagonist?
From our friend Dictionary.com:
- a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted towickedness or crime; scoundrel.
- a character in a play, novel, or the like, who constitutes animportant evil agency in the plot.
- a person who is opposed to, struggles against, or competeswith another; opponent; adversary.
- the adversary of the hero or protagonist of a drama or otherliterary work: Iago is the antagonist of Othello.
So a villain is an antagonist but an antagonist isn’t always a villain. For example, in Paradise Lost, Satan is the protagonist of the book, when at the time of its publishing, I’m pretty sure the interpretation of Satan had switched from trickster agent of God to straight villain. ’Antagonist’ and ’Protagonist’ changes based on whose story is being told, while ‘villain’ is a moral judgement. Additionally, if we’re talking about the three Western sources of conflict within a story (self, man, nature), the antagonist of the story in addition to being a person could be fate, or a blizzard, or even the protagonist himself.
Hope that explains it!
Trash Pumping: Rebloggable
To the anon before me: As my teacher says “you have to start pumping out the trash before you even get to the good stuff. ALWAYS WRITE! ALWAYS CREATE! Everything you do will be better than the last!
I had an art teacher in high school who was pretty kickass. He told me about an experiment that a ceramics teacher (that he knew? I can’t recall) had done at one point. The ceramics teacher told half the class to make one perfect bowl, which they’d be turning in at the end of term, and they’d only be graded on how good the one bowl was. The other half of the class was told that they would be graded on quantity produced only. At the end of term, the people that had made tons and tons of work had much better pieces than the people who’d focused only on one. You get better by making. So don’t hold back, get out there and make some shit.
Rough Drafts- rebloggable at request
I have this project I started last year and I got characters, setting, plot, and everything laid put. But I feel if I start writing it’ll sound awkward and clunky sort of.
It probably will. Writing always sounds clumsy compared to your imagining, the way that your spoken words sound ineloquent compared to your thoughts.
Don’t worry about it! The first draft will probably be pretty bad, and that’s okay. The revisions are what’s going to make it good. Get writing, so that you can get your words down and start revising them.
You can do it!
Hi! I started a new writing blog on tumblr called Warm Tea and Blank Pages! It is basically a place where I offer advice from my own writing experiences, post links to sites about different events going on in the writing world, and welcome writers to submit any of their own advice and stories about their experiences as well. The goal is for a community of writers to gather together and talk about, vent about, and gush about the writing process. Anyone who loves to write or read please check it out! Thanks! And happy writings!