Monday, May 17, 2010

Filling in the Background


No story exists in a vacuum. Unless you're writing about the adventures of a gaggle of newborns, all your characters had lives before this particular plot happened. They had loves and disappointments, successes and failures. Each of them has a past. When and how do you let your reader know their stories?

Firstly, you have to know their pasts. Each writer does it their own way; some fill out questionnaires, some write mini-biographies, some just let it fly and let the character reveal themselves as the writing progresses. I seem to fall in between the latter two, I do know a fair bit about each of my characters, but as I write there are always surprises.

Secondly, how do you fit this backstory in? No one in real life will shake your hand and then proceed to tell you their life story, unless copious amounts of alcohol are involved. You learn about people over time or when certain instances occur. The smell of cookies may remind someone of their grandmother baking every Wednesday morning - or it could remind them of the scorched aroma that emanated from the oven every time their Dad tried to bake. Maybe these memories have affected their behaviour - one could have guilt that they don't bake, while another could have a fear of hot ovens. Who knows? But that cookie smell just opened the door a little wider and your reader just learned something new about your character.

There were days in your characters' lives before "Once upon a time." Give yourself time to fill in the blanks. What were their hopes? What made them happy? If they're in an unhappy relationship, there must have been a time when it was happy. What is their normal routine before you throw the events of your plot at them? And, bless their hearts, how do they react to life-shaking change? I would imagine discovering a dead body would give most people pause. So would discovering your significant other has been 'significant' with someone else.

I try to remember that no one changes overnight. It takes time. In real life, 'aha' moments are few. I try to write situations where my characters can reveal their backstories a smidgen at a time. Even best friends keep secrets from one another - and, as I've discovered, so do characters from their author.

21 comments:

  1. Nice post, Elspeth. :)

    Gradual backstory sharing is the best! I hate those data dumps when I come across them...boggles my mind. But it's so important to show who the character is now because of where they've come from--we just have to work it in.

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  2. Elizabeth; I hope I'm getting better at it every day, and every time I edit! I hate those data dumps as well.

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  3. Little snips of background here and there in a story are good. It me a remember them better and it also gives you something to look forward to. You know you're going to be learning more about the characters as you go along. Enjoyed the post.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

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  4. I discover the character's past as I go. I don't fill out templates for them- most of it turns out to be unnecessary. Sometimes I'll get stuck and have to have a conversation with them about that.

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  5. Mason; It does make it easier to remember, doesn't it?

    Stephanie; Thanks for sharing what works for you, I love discovering how other writers think!

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  6. I don't like data dumps either. I tend to gloss over them, my eyes glaze or roll upward. But when it's done in an organic way, as the story moves forward and I'm getting to know the character, I love finding out more and more about them and what makes them tick.
    Karen

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  7. Karen; I tend to have the same reaction! The best lesson I ever heard about writing is "Write what you would want to read".

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  8. Elspeth - Loved this post! I agree 100% with you (odd how we kinda wrote about the same thing for today, huh?). Giving backstories all at once can be hard for the reader - tiresome, even. It really is much more interesting, and more realistic, to give that kind of information bit by bit. That's realistic, too. As you say, almost no-one knows everything about us...

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  9. Margot; I think too much information all at once can just be confusing. If a reader can barely remember a character's name at that early point, why should a writer surround the character with baggage? First, a purse. Then a small carry-on. And so on and so on and so on...and before you know it, there's a trunk.

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  10. Good point. My characters tend to keep secrets from me, too. But then I love surprises!)

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  11. Jane; They can be sneaky little creatures, can't they? Usually the surprise turns out to be good and makes me wonder why I didn't figure it out on my own!

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  12. I agree to gradually feed info about your characters into the story. It helps tension and keeps the readers reading. Great post!

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  13. The characters I like best are the ones get to know slowly. Data Dumps are people who's names I forget (or try not to remember).
    Love that phrase --Data Dump. Just sums it all up nicely.
    Maribeth
    Giggles and Guns

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  14. This is so true, except for those odd characters you get stuck next to on a bus or airplane--the ones who give you their life stories and there's no way you can escape.

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  15. I'm with you, I like my characters to reveal themselves by actions because most are quiet and reserved. No one I know - well, most I know - don't tell me about their lives on the first visit.

    Great post.

    CD

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  16. Such a great post! Yes, friends and characters keep secrets, don't they? The reveal is certainly fun though.

    Found your blog from Patricia Stotley. So glad I did!

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  17. Kathi; You're absolutely right - it does help build tension. Good point.

    Meribeth; I find those dumps irritating as well, and I start to instantly dislike the character.

    Patricia; Aren't they the worst? You can only keep that polite expression in place for so long.

    Clarissa; I don't know if my characters are quiet and reserved - but most are extremely well-mannered.

    Julie; Welcome! I'm glad you liked the post. Let's face it, life (and books) with no secrets would be extremely dull.

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  18. I try to build a background for each character, significant events of the past and how they relate to their family and why. But then I aim to just draw on those anecdotes throughout the story when a suitable time arises.

    Great post :-)

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  19. Charmaine; I try to follow a very similar pattern. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment!

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  20. "a smidgen at a time" is what I like best in a read, and what I try to do when I write. Excellent post, Elspeth.

    Marvin D Wilson

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  21. I am ALWAYS tempted to share too much up front... in fact in my first drafts, often I DO... I guess I fall in love with the complex characters and want my readers to see how much I thought about it *snort*

    I am currently writing my first mystery though, and I am LOVING having this SECRET background, to be revealed as the story goes. It is a kick to have the BACKGROUND be tied so tightly to the plot.

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