Backstory Fatigue

Maybe it’s just my own declining attention span (thanks Jim for another reminder of the issue in yesterday’s blog post!), but I’m increasingly growing weary of complicated, anguished backstories in crime shows. I admit I haven’t been reading much in the way of mysteries lately, as I’ve been focusing on research for my latest WIP, but I often turn to TV crime shows (usually of the British variety) to relax. Lately, however, I’ve found my interest waning as the backstories in the latest crop of shows I’ve started (but not finished!) have become increasingly overwrought and intrusive.

I like to watch as characters take shape slowly over many episodes, evolving alongside their cases, rather than having a backstory thrust upon me right from the get go in a way that I find intrusive and (often times) underwhelming. The current show that’s got me peeved the Netflix original series Paranoid. In the first few episodes we get an intriguing murder but also (in my opinion) a rather heavy handed introduction to the backstory for each of the main protagonists – a panic attack ridden investigator, a know-it all junior officer with a lying alcoholic lying mother, and a female investigator who goes from cocky to crumbling wreck after her boyfriend dumps her (she wants children, she’s in her late 30s. etc. etc.). While I will probably persevere with the show, I feel like I’m already experiencing backstory fatigue and I’m only up to episode 3!

The best crime/mystery shows and novels allow the protagonist’s backstory to unfold and inform the story as well as intrigue the reader. I wonder, given the crowded marketplace, whether we’re currently experiencing a bit of ‘backstory overload’ as a means of trying to differentiate the show/story/characters. For me, however, this often feels like a character’s backstory is being foisted upon me right from the start in an effort to either impress or unnerve me (neither of which usually work!). In Broadchurch, I was willing to buy into the multitude of character ‘issues’ because their stories evolved alongside the case and thus felt organic. I’m not sure the same can be said for Paranoid (for me the jury is still out).

So how does this help inform the writing process when it comes to character development and backstory? For me, my current irritation has helped solidify the following advice…

  1. A character’s backstory needs to evolve rather than be rammed down a reader’s throat. That means no huge exposition dumps or digressions too early on and no ‘overloaded’ backstory for a character that feels imposed rather than organic.
  2. The ‘iceberg’ approach works best – let the reader know there is far more beneath the surface of the character than the tip that the reader sees initially. Let the water recede to reveal the extent and depth of the backstory as the plot/story unfolds.
  3. Make sure to consider the multifaceted nature of human beings. Sometimes genre characters can feel too ‘one note’ (the classic depressed, alcoholic loner as a detective for example) but sometimes they can also feel way too overwrought and unnatural…so make sure you feel like you’re creating a real person.
  4. Don’t try too hard to create the world’s most anguished or unusual detective. Again, this seems to be evident in TV shows more so than novels, but after a while, backstories can start to feel like gimmicks rather than genuine human foibles.

So what do you think about when creating your characters’ backstories? How do you approach backstory development? Which TV shows or novels do you think have explored backstory well, and which have given you (like me) a bit of ‘backstory fatigue’?

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Emotional Resonance

Following on from Jim’s great post yesterday on describing characters, I was prompted to think about characters with emotional resonance while reading the great children’s book Wonder by R.J. Palacio. My kids had been urging me to read this book for a while now and as soon as I started reading it I could see why. Absolutely every character (even the mean ones!) in this book resonated with me on a deep emotional level. I think this is the reason many adults enjoy children and YA books – because, when they succeed, they provide a huge emotional wallop that stays with a reader long after they have finished reading.

Few adult books have had the same impact on me in recent years, but I think, as a writer, the issue of emotional resonance when it comes to character development, is a critical one. Almost every book I’ve failed to finish or which has left me disappointed, has failed because I haven’t been able to care enough about the characters. Even in books where the plot has become thin or events have stretched credulity, emotionally deep and resonant characters have kept me reading.

In some ways, the process of providing emotional resonance mirrors the way a writer describes a character because it focuses on the feelings the character inspires in a reader. Those feelings don’t have to always be warm and fluffy, but they do need to strike a chord with a reader. The most powerful characters stay with a reader long after the book is finished.

All too often at writing classes or conferences the pieces that I’ve read or critiqued have had one major failing – the characters themselves. They are often flat on the page, cliched or simply do not ring true. So how do you create emotionally complex, relatable and ultimately resonant characters? Maybe the best starting point is to identify what not to do and work up from there.

Many new writers may feel the urge to create a quirky, one-of-a-kind character or perhaps they hope to create characters similar to those that have proven most popular in their genre (here’s where the recovering alcoholic, down at heel PI often comes into play). In either case, a writer should beware of using standard character tropes and cliches as well as going too far the other way by creating the most ‘out there’ character who sounds nothing like anyone a reader would ever meet in real life. if a character is nothing more that a series of quirks or tics then a reader is going to be just as dissatisfied as if the character is little more than a carbon copy of the stock-standard genre character. The key is (I think) to get into the head and emotions of a character in a way that displays the writer’s own unique perspective. In some ways, perhaps you have to place a little of yourself in each character (maybe not in a literal sense but certainly in an emotional sense).

Striking a chord in readers can be tricky as each reader also brings their own perspective, background, and emotions to the books they are reading. One character’s actions may pack an emotional punch for some readers and yet leave others cold. I find, for example, that parents in books often pack a huge emotional whallop for me, especially in books like Wonder or The Fault in our Stars. If I’d read these books when I was younger, I suspect different characters would have evoked a very different kind of emotional reaction. Yet there are some universal truths out there and characters that evoke strong emotions will go on to have wider resonance.

It’s hard to provide any kind of definitive ‘tip list’ for creating this kind of emotional resonance, simply because it is an illusive target (we only know it when we feel in the gut) but I think some of the elements include:

  • Going deep within a character’s psyche to understand their motivations;
  • Drawing upon your own past experiences and interactions to add depth;
  • Using action as well as interaction to draw out a character rather than description alone (this helps readers experience a character rather than just reading about them in a static sense);
  • Finding the humanity within all the characters (even your villains);
  • Exploring the inhumanity within all your characters (we all have weaknesses and foibles, prejudices and flaws that make us who we are – even if we’re not proud of them);
  • Looking for the universality of experience that strikes a chord in you the writer as you describe your characters and take them on their unique journey through your book;
  • Avoiding thinking or describing characters in terms of what they should be but rather what they are – try to step back from relying on conventions or mimicking other writer’s characters and remember no one is superhuman or a psychopath in their own mind.

These are just a few ways I think writers can start to inhabit their characters to provide a level of feeling that will hopefully resonate in readers. What tips do you have?

 

 

 

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Make Sure Your Characters Act in Character!

Captivate_full_w_decalby Jodie Renner, editor & author @JodieRennerEd

DO YOUR CHARACTERS’ DECISIONS AND ACTIONS SEEM REALISTIC AND AUTHENTIC?

Have you ever been reading a story when suddenly the protagonist does or says something that makes you think, “Oh come on! Why would he do that?” or “This is crazy. Why doesn’t she…?” or “But I thought he…!” or “I didn’t know he/she could [insert extraordinary ability].” The character seems to be acting illogically, to be making decisions with little motivation or contrary to his personality, abilities, or values

I see this problem a lot in fiction manuscripts I edit. The author needs something to happen for the sake of the plot they’ve planned out in advance, so they force a supposedly intelligent character to do something contrary to common sense and their best interests, like recklessly putting themselves in danger.

For example, I once edited a book where the highly educated, intelligent heroine rose from her bed in the middle of the night and, without telling her husband where she was going or even leaving a note, drove to a remote warehouse to find some incriminating evidence, knowing the killer was likely to return – which of course he did, and attempted to kill her. It made for an exciting scene, but unfortunately, the otherwise savvy character came off looking like a foolhardy, impulsive airhead. I couldn’t help wondering, why wouldn’t she tell her husband? Better yet, call the police and let them handle it.  Even police, who are trained for these situations, usually get backup.

Moving your characters around like pawns to suit the plot, if it doesn’t make sense for who they are, could have your readers scratching their heads in disbelief or, worse, throwing your book across the room, then writing a scathing one-star review of it.

Don’t force your characters, kicking and screaming, into actions they just wouldn’t do.

Readers won’t suspend their disbelief and bond with the character if they don’t “buy” what the character is doing and why. An engrossing story needs realistic characters dealing with adversity in bold but realistic and plausible ways.

To make a character’s decisions and actions convincing, take care when creating their background, character, abilities, and motivations.

Background, character, and personality

Of course, you don’t want to make your hero or heroine ordinary, timid, or passive, with few daring decisions, because that would make for a ho-hum book most readers wouldn’t bother finishing. But on the other hand, if you’re going to have them perform daredevil feats, be sure to build that into their makeup.

First, get to know your main characters well. Take some time to develop their background, character, and personality. Are they athletic or more cerebral? Risk-takers or cautious? Do they embrace change, enjoy challenge, love to learn new things? Or do they prefer to stay within their comfort zone? To plumb their depths, do some free-form journaling in which they express their strongest desires, fears, hopes, secrets, regrets, and gripes.

Are they physically capable of what you want them to do?

Abilities

If, for a riveting plot, you need your hero to do something heroic, almost superhuman, make sure he has the determination, strength, flexibility, and endurance to do that. Although it’s amazing what people are able to do under duress with the adrenaline flowing, it’s more credible if your character is already at least somewhat fit. Does he work out a lot to maintain muscle mass, agility, and endurance? How? Also, he’ll need to be intelligent, skilled, and resourceful.

If he needs special skills, show earlier on that he possesses them and how it all makes sense, given his overall makeup. In one novel I edited, the sedentary, slightly overweight, middle-aged protagonist fought off a strong attacker with quick, expert martial arts moves. This was an “Oh, come on!” moment, given his lifestyle, age, and paunch.

In The Hunger Games, we learn early on that Katniss is an expert at archery, which is a huge factor in her survival later. A nerdy banker probably doesn’t do kickboxing on the side, so you may need to make him less desk-bound and more athletic for it to work. Or give him another profession.

If you’re writing fantasy, of course you have more leeway with unusual characters and situations, but if you’re writing a realistic genre, with no supernatural or paranormal elements, make sure the character’s actions are realistic and make sense.

Motivations

Is your hero sufficiently motivated to put his life on the line? Do those motivations fit with his belief system, background, and immediate needs? If you want or need a character to do something dangerous, go back and give him some burning reasons for choosing that course of action.

Perhaps he finds himself in a life-and-death situation for himself or someone he loves, or innocent people are in grave danger. His love, concern, and determination will make him more selfless and daring, bringing out courage he never knew he had.

As Steven James advises in Story Trumps Structure, as you’re writing your story, ask yourself , “What would this character naturally do in this situation? Is he properly motivated to take this action?”

Causality

Be sure your narrative is also shaped by the logic of cause and effect. For your story to be believable, character decisions and reactions need to plausibly follow the original stimulus or actions. If your character overreacts or underreacts to what has just happened, they won’t seem “in character” or real.

Be sure every decision and action makes sense with what preceded it. As James suggests, as you go along, continually ask yourself, “What would naturally happen next?”

So don’t force your characters to act in uncharacteristic ways because your plot needs them to. Readers will pick up on that. Rather than insisting certain events or actions happen as you had planned, instead allow the natural sequence of events and logical reactions to shape your plotline.

Go through your story to make sure your characters are acting and reacting in ways that are authentic to who they are and where they’ve come from, and that they’re sufficiently motivated to take risks. Also, do their reactions fit with the stimulus? Is that a logical response to what happened?

Ask yourself, as you’re writing, “Is there a way to accomplish this that fits with the character’s values and personality?” If not, I suggest you either change the plot (have them make a different decision and rewrite where that leads them) or go back and change some of the character’s basic attributes, values, and skills. Or add in incidents in their past that have shaped them in ways that will justify their current actions.

That way your plot will flow seamlessly and your characters will seem real. There will be no bumps, no hiccups where readers will be suddenly jolted out of the story.

As William Faulkner advised one of his fiction-writing classes,

“…get the character in your mind. Once he is in your mind, and he is right, and he’s true, then he does the work himself. All you need to do then is to trot along behind him and put down what he does and what he says.”

So don’t impose your preconceived ideas on the character – you risk making him do things he just wouldn’t do. Know your characters really well and the rest will naturally follow.

Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silversJodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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