I participated in Writers Helping Writers’s Amazing Race a while back where for seven days they helped close to 350 writers with hooks, first pages, query letters, blog posts, and much more. Each day held a variety of prize drawings as well and I won one of the twenty seats for Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s webinar on creating and knowing your characters’ past.
A simple way to think about your characters is to think about the real people around you. I love sitting in a mall or airport or even church, just to watch people. How they move. How they communicate. How they dress. Do you have someone interesting in your life? What makes them interesting? Personality? Accent? Behavior?
Writers need to recognize that our readers want to read about real people—even when they know the story is fiction. They long for something deeper: Understanding, connection, hope. A way to make their own lives better somehow.
“Crappy things happen every day. Give readers someone to root for,” Becca said. Writers can do this through empathy. The reader needs to care about our protagonist and whatever battle he or she is up against.
Backstory is the key. The protagonist’s—or antagonist’s—emotional wound is what makes for a realistic and genuine character. Whatever the wound may be, it has changed them. The character will go to great extremes to avoid finding themselves in that painful situation again. Their past affects their present and how they respond to any given circumstance.
The character moves on with his or her life. Challenge them. Motivate them. What’s compelling is their goals and desires that keep them going. Provide small to medium-sized successes that keep moving the story, and the character, forward. Eventually, they must face their fear and overcome it. The goal will always outweigh their fear. Hence, the story arc.
But how much backstory is too much and where and when do you put it in? The backstory must apply to what is currently happening in the story. You never want to stop, provide the backstory, and start again. This slows pace and causes readers to skim. And that’s the last thing you want.
You also want to show, not tell. Do this through dialogue, remembering, interaction, a pivotal moment. If you must pause for a flashback, get in and get out. Don’t take more time than necessary.
I’ve listened to several agent and editor panels at various writers’ conferences across the country over the past few years. They all say the same thing where backstory is concerned: Sprinkle it in. It’s better to do it in doses here and there than to stop the story for chunks of writing your reader will most likely skim. Skimming is never a good thing.
For someone writing memoir, like myself, the entire story happened in the past. Choose where to start your story, but keep in mind that most of your history will not make it into the book.
How do you create your characters and how do you handle their backstory?