I was heartbroken to realize that I lost track of time last month and missed out on #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, but I’m hoping that Raimey Gallant will be a benevolent host and let me back in because I had so much fun reading and writing these last year. Check out the main link to see what other writers have to offer!
I’ll be honest: I don’t really spend very much time thinking about characters’ backstories.
Not because I don’t care about them – really, it’s more of the opposite problem. I’m the kind of writer who thrives on worldbuilding, on planting a seed and then watching and trying to keep up as the resulting plant takes over the garden. I consider myself a pruner, to keep the gardening metaphor going. I encourage particularly promising growths and try to cut off dead weight but otherwise, I tend to sit back in my mind and let things bloom as they will. By the time I’ve got anything resembling a plot, my characters have usually already assembled a host of likes, dislikes, memories, quirks, friends, enemies, and stories. All I have to do is figure out how to turn them into a cohesive narrative.
It ties into an idea that seems to be pretty common in writing communities: that characters and worlds are entities unto themselves, that they develop and grow naturally, that an author needs to be able to step back from time to time and let her characters express themselves.
I’ll admit, I’m partial to that idea. It certainly feels reflective of my writing process.
But I had one of those lightning-bolt realizations the other day: having fleshed-out characters isn’t enough.
This came to me after reading a facebook exchange between two aspiring writers. One of them was struggling to write characters, having difficulty connecting with their characters and connecting them to the plot, even though most of those characters had rich and vibrant backgrounds. The other writer asked a shockingly simple question: what do those backstories have to do with the plot of your novel?
I’ll admit, I forget what the first writer answered, because I was too busy being floored; I’ve been struggling with one of my protagonists lately. I know his story inside and out, I understand his motivations, his aspirations and his fears … I just haven’t been able to write him properly. And the moment I thought about it, I realized that none of those things had anything to do with the narrative I was weaving – which meant that every time I wanted to connect something back to him I had to step outside of the story to explain, explain, explain.
Which is pretty much the easiest way to kill a nascent novel.
The fact of the matter is that as precious as our characters are, they are tools that writers use to tell stories. There’s nothing inherently wrong with letting a character come to life in the back of your head and then following them around as they go about their business. A lot of books do just that, and if the character is interesting enough and the world they’re exploring is vivid enough it turns out fine. Often, though, the spark just isn’t there and the story seems flat, confused, indulgent, or just plain boring.
That’s especially true for writers who are trying to craft a specific story. When we’re focusing on the plot like I’m trying to do right now, we don’t have the luxury of carrying around half a dozen irrelevant backstories. I’ve rambled before about how writers shouldn’t obsess over brevity, but every word should still be moving the reader toward our ultimate goal.
So I had a character who was a hundreds-of-years-old fairy knight who risked everything for true love when he fell in love with a mortal woman. Being mortal, though, his true love eventually died and his queen refused to take him back, stripping him of most of his powers. He’s been wandering around for the past several centuries trying to stay under the radar, afraid to make a connection for fear of what it might cost him.
But what does that have to do with the novel that I’m actually trying to write at this moment?
It turns out that it doesn’t, really, except to give some context for why he’s always a gloomy jerk. Now, context is important, because I really want readers to sympathize with him. Unfortunately, in this case, I just ended up with a character who constantly needed to interrupt the action to talk about things that happened to him hundreds of years ago. Which makes him a gloomy, self-absorbed jerk, and no wonder I couldn’t write him for beans.
In the last month, I’ve gone back and rewritten his history so that he has a connection with the main villain – but I don’t think it has to be that obvious. Maybe a character’s history mirrors the present situation in some way and the way they handled it in the past impacts how they deal with it now. Maybe they’ve burned bridges that they find they now have to cross or swore they’d never do something that needs to be done.
Whatever it is, though, it needs to be direct and it needs to be immediate. A trick that I’m trying to use right now – every time I’m about to go into an element of backstory, I imagine another character saying: “So why are you telling me this?” If my character can’t think of a good reason to be bringing it up, I probably need to make their history more relevant.
I don’t like doing this. For one thing, it feels kind of callous to start hacking and slashing characters I’ve been building (I almost said ‘working with’ there) for years. For another, it goes against my image of writing being this organic, free-flowing process that blossoms like a swan, or whatever. As calculating as I can be, apparently I’ve still got that little glimmer of romanticism in me.
At the end of the day, though, characters have jobs to do just like the rest of us. They need to keep up – or find out first hand what it means to ‘kill your darlings’.