Tag Archive | characters

Just because I need to know that, doesn’t mean the reader does — or, adventures in back stories

“I rather think you should be writing.”

(click to embiggen)

As mentioned previously, I’m doing NaNoWriMo again, and so have less time for blogging than usual. I was bantering with a couple of friends last night on line while also trying to finish a scene, and something one friend said about her childhood made me think of an interesting detail to add to the history of one of the characters I was writing. The other friend asked why would I complicate the story with that new detail, and I had to explain that just because I add some more information to a character’s biography doesn’t mean it’s going to pop up in the story.

This reminded me of another conversation I was part of online elsewhere in which another NaNoWriMo participant commented that they had gotten bogged down because they reached a part of the tale where some characters needed to explain something that had happened off screen to other characters. Since NaNoWriMo is a first draft, experienced writers go into it knowing that a bunch of what we write isn’t going to remain in the final story. Sometimes we know that we’re just writing a scene to figure something out. Other times we don’t realize that all or most of a scene isn’t needed until much later, while we’re editing revising.

It is true that sometimes you need to give the reader information to understand a character’s motives and relationships. The trick is to do it without a lot of exposition. One of my favorite instances of giving the viewer such back story happened in the pilot episode of Teen Wolf the series. There’s a lot of bad story telling (contradictions, nonsensical villain plots, queer-baiting by the metric tonne, et cetera) that happened in that series, but sometimes they got things right. In that first episode, the two teen best friends, Stiles and Scott, are trying to figure out what bit Scott the night before, and whether it has anything to do with the mysterious body found be authorities the previous day. They are in the woods and are confronted by a slightly older, very gruff man who tells them they are trespassing and to go away. As they leave, Stiles whispers to Scott, “Don’t you remember who that is? It’s Derek Hale, he was a couple years ahead of in school? His entire family died in a fire several years back.”

It’s a whole lot of backstory, packed into a couple of sentences that set up a number of more mysteries and reveals that come up over the rest of the season. And having Stiles be the one who says it helps you learn a bit more about his personality traits that become important later: he notices things, he obsessively researches things, and no matter how many times his father, the Sheriff, tells him not to snoop, his curiosity just can’t be restrained.

Anyway, I’ve written about this topic a few times. But rather than paraphrase, I’m just going to quote one of the shorter posts on that topic from some years ago:

Too much back story

In order to write a character’s dialog correctly, I have to have a good image in my head of who he or she is. That doesn’t mean I need to know eye color and hair length and how they dress, necessarily—I’m using image metaphorically. I mean that part of the process of giving a character a personality is imagining their life and how they got to be who they are now.

This is for everyone, even walk-on characters who may have only one or two lines of dialog out of an entire novel. I’m not one of those authors who has to write all of that down before I can use the character. Walk-ons usually just pop up when I need them. I’ve put my protagonist in jail, let’s say, and I’d planned who his cellmate would be before I got to the scene, but I hadn’t thought much about any other prisoners. As I start writing the scene between the protagonist and his cellmate, the other prisoners just chimed in at appropriate parts. While I don’t know the names of any of them, I have a small sketch in my mind of each one’s personality and a bit of his or her history, too. It just blossomed as soon as I needed someone to make a humorous interjection.

That’s just the walk-ons. Supporting characters that are planned as parts of subplots have quite a bit more than that, while the main characters have even more.

Most of the backstory remains in my head and my notes. My stories tend to be character- and dialog- driven, so usually the only details about a character’s background that come up are the ones that would normally occur in conversation:

“You always have to be smarter than everyone else, don’t you?”

“There was a time when you found that endearing.”

“I grew up!”

Even without any description or names, reading that dialog tells you that these two have known each other a long time, that they used to be close (perhaps even romanticaly involved), and now they are less friendly. I may never reveal more about the past experiences between these two characters, but I know how they met, how long they were close, how they spent their time together, and how they had their falling out.

Usually I’m pretty good about not letting the backstory over shadow the current action. But not always. Especially if I get some characters together in a scene who are very talkative. The dialog can go on and on for a while, if I let them.

During re-write I always find some scenes like this, filled with a lot of interesting banter, but that I need to trim. When reading the scenes aloud, even just by myself, I can tell when they’re going on too long. Fortunately, usually it only takes a little pruning to punch up the scene and get things moving.

But sometimes that backstory includes information the reader needs, and it isn’t always clear until I get a reader’s perspective that some details I thought could be inferred weren’t obivous.

I have a couple of supporting characters I’m working with right now whose scenes I was trimming the last couple of nights. They’re both intresting characters. I’ve gotten feedback indicating readers like them. (Even though in the current novel they don’t have any scenes together, one of them had a short story of his own published a few years ago, and the other happened to be a supporting chracter in it.) But they’re only supporting characters in this tale, and the parts they have to play in the current story aren’t big enough to justify all that information.

Even though I saved the removed dialog elsewhere, it still hurts to trim it.

But when it’s too much, it has to go!

A writer writes — where do characters come from?

“Yes I am writing you into my book! You're gruesomely butchered on page 76. You're welcome!”

“Yes I am writing you into my book! You’re gruesomely butchered on page 76. You’re welcome!”

I have written more than once about my annoyance with an oft-used trope when portraying writers as characters in movies, TV shows, on the like: specifically, that the only reason a particular novel or series of novels has so enraptured the readers is because the author has secretly based the story on real life and real characters. My annoyance with that is multi-fold, not the least because I truly believe the old adage that the difference between real life and fiction is that fiction has to make sense. You can’t tell a compelling story by slavishly recreating something that you experienced in real life. You weave an illusion that feels real from a combination of observation, interpellation, and omission. For example, dialog isn’t about exactly transcribing the real way that people talk—we omit parts that don’t move the story forward, or don’t flow easily off the tongue, or that will confuse the reader without the context of nonverbal cues.

Which is not to say that characters we put in our stories aren’t or shouldn’t be based on real people. Many characters are amalgams of many people that the author has encountered throughout their life. Quite often the author can’t name all of the sources of a character because many were people we encountered without getting to know well, plus half assembling of the personality quirks happened in the writer’s subconscious. Other times, we knew exactly who we got a particular mannerism or figure of speech from. And sometimes it’s a lot more than one or two things.

I made a conscious decision with one of my novels to (in most cases) loosely base characters on specific people or characters from other works. It started out as just a whim, and for a while was kind of a fun game, and then it became something I did without thinking. I’d need a new supporting character for a particular scene or subplot, and start writing them, only to realize many paragraphs into the first scene that I was basing some aspects of the character on that person.

Some people don’t want to do that, at all. And I’m sure that you can find someone out there who will adamantly insist you should never base a character on a real person that you know. They will list off several good reasons for this advice. One of the things those annoying shows I mentioned earlier do get right is that if friends and acquaintances guess or suspect a particular character is based on them, and that character if portrayed in a less-than-flattering way, that can cause a bit of resentment in your real life.

My counter argument is that certain people in your life will, when they read something you wrote, sometimes think that you have based a character upon them whether you consciously did so or not. And if they take offense, whether you meant to base the character on them or not isn’t going to matter. You can attempt to explain the way every character in fiction is, to an extent, a pastiche built from your imagination as well as observation of real people, but it may not convince them.

One of my favorite villains in my current WIP is a character named Mother Bedlam. Parts of her personality, mannerisms, and relationships are based on at least three real people I have known in life, all of whom have since passed away. Other parts of her come from a variety of crass, conniving, and criminally depraved characters and historical figures. She’s intended to be a comedic villain, despite also doing some vile and violent things and propelling serious plot points along. Many of her traits are exaggerations for comedic effect. If any of the people I have consciously based her on were to read my stories (which they never will, because they’re all dead) and recognize themselves in her, I might have an awkward situation to sort out.

As it is, one time when I read one of her scenes to my writers’ group, another member of the group who had laughed a lot during that scene, told me later that if he didn’t know better, he would have been convinced I had somehow spied on his childhood and one particular despised teacher he had in grade school. At subsequent appearances of the character he would bring that up again. One time another person’s critique of some new scenes was that Mother Bedlam had been over the top—that no person would really treat one of their underlings that day. The other guy jumped in to say that his teacher had done almost exactly the same thing to one of the children in her care.

There are at least two lessons to take from this example. First, to paraphrase Terry Pratchett, there are only actually a few people in the world, we just meet many of them again and again. The other is that this illustrates why some character you think of as wholly original to you might make someone you know insist that the character is based upon them.

And I know I am hardly the only writer who has ever based a minor character whose only purpose is to die brutally to further the plot on a real person who gave us some sort of trouble at some point in our lives. My most vicious middle school bully has leant his name and or personality to a number of characters who have met such brutal deaths. Then there is one person who caused so much trouble for both myself and several people I know, that I made him into a character who is brutally killed in one book, brought back as an undead creature, and variously maimed, burned, re-killed, and so forth a few times in subsequent books.

Some people call it petty. I call it do-it-yourself-therapy.

Nothing wrong with a flawed hero…

Cat with a manual typewriter.I’ve had several partially drafted blog posts about protagonists and heroes and characters I love reading/watching and characters I love to hate and characters that disappoint and how my feelings as a writer are sometimes different than my reactions as a reader. Which I never seem to be able to finish.

One reason I have trouble finishing any of them is that in many ways it’s one great big nuanced topic in my head, which is impossible to condense into a thousands words, but is just as difficult to break up into meaningful sub-parts without wanting to cross-reference all the other sub-parts. And while the crazy info architect inside me thinks it would be awesome to compose a dozen blog posts each with a dozen footnotes and cross-references to the other, the practical side of me knows that way lies madness.

And then Watts Martin quoted Glen Weldon from NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, and this quote covers one of the big concepts in my nuanced ball in far less than a thousand words:

“We tell ourselves we embrace the antihero because we think it’s more sophisticated. We recognize that the world isn’t black and white, and that moral ambiguity and ambivalence is ‘more real.’ We tell ourselves that, and we’re awfully smug about it, but the real reason we’re doing that—that we embrace the antihero—is because we just don’t have the guts to embrace the hero. We’re too cowardly, we’re too cynical to believe in heroes. We distrust ideals because they’re too hopeful and sincere. If we believed in the heroes that embodied them, it means we’d actually have to risk something, put ourselves out there, be hopeful and sincere and look hokey and uncool. The default reflexive cynicism risks nothing.”
—Glen Weldon

Weldon is talking about anti-heroes, which is a protagonist with the opposite of the usual attributes of a hero (idealism, courage, selflessness), but that doesn’t mean that there are only two types of protagonist possible: hero and anti-hero. An anti-hero is different than an imperfect person being heroic. People rationalize the reflexive cynicism Weldon describes by pointing out that no one is perfect, therefore heroes don’t exist. While it is true that no one is perfect, a person doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect in order to be good.

As a reader, I love rooting for a character who isn’t perfect but is trying to do the right thing, any way. Dan Savage likes to say that a successful relationship is a myth two people build together. You each pretend that the other person is their best self—that best-foot-forward version of yourself you presented on your first date. As time goes on, you each try to do a better job of being that better self. It’s not simply a matter of overlooking imperfections, there is also a process of real change, of transforming yourself into someone who deserves the love of the person you love.

That isn’t just true of romantic relationship. A successful friendship is a similar jointly-created myth. And yes, a good relationship between a reader and a beloved character has some elements of that as well.

As a writer, I want readers to identify with my characters. I want them to root for the characters when the characters struggle. I want them to be disappointed when a character makes a mistake. But just as in real life when a good friend disappoints us, I want my reader to still cheer the character on when the character struggles to make amends. I want my character to be that kind of a hero: an imperfect person striving to be their better self.

It’s sincere and it’s hokey and it’s uncool, yes. But that doesn’t make it unrealistic.

(Un)real Characters

2bad57a909fd53708036ef02ae3ba068So I was scanning through my usual news sites a couple of weeks ago and saw a headline about the Guardians of the Galaxy that caught my eye. I’d already seen the movie the previous week, and had enjoyed it even more than I had anticipated. So I definitely went into the article with a bouncy fanboy attitude. The author talked about how the movie was better than he had expected, mentioned a few of the pros and cons of the overall story and construction, but then settled in to his main thesis: the characters audiences seemed most drawn to in the film were Rocket, the genetically-altered and cybernetically-enhanced raccoon, and Groot, a walking, (barely) talking tree—and the writer thought this was a bad thing.

He thought it was bad because those two characters are computer animated images, rather than being portrayed by human actors. He admitted that they were voiced by human actors, but “when pixels move us to tears more readily than actual people, that’s a problem.”

My pedantic side immediately wanted to post a comment that, since most theatres have made the switch to digital projection, every character in every movie people see in theatres are pixels rather than real—not to mention all the movies and series that people watch on TVs, computer monitors, phones, and tablets now. Even before digital movies, old-fashioned film wasn’t real people either, it was images projected on a screen by shining light through celluloid tinted with various chemicals.

All of that is missing a more fundamental point. None of the characters in films, plays, television series, et cetera, are real. They are all fictional characters being evoked by a combination of tricks and techniques of storytelling and acting.

I realize that I’m a bit biased, here. I have been a fan of comics from an early age. I grew up laughing at and following the adventures of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Yogi Bear, and dozens of other cartoon characters. I have edited and published a science fiction fanzine that features talking animals, the occasional human, and all sorts of aliens for nearly twenty years. I’m currently engaged in writing a series of fantasy novels set in a world populated by talking animals, dragons, ghouls, kitsune, and any number of other non-human creatures. For the last few years, I have awaited the unveiling of a new season of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic with as much anticipation as a new season of Doctor Who or White Collar.

So maybe I’m just a bit too far out from normal to be commenting on this. However, the author of that particular article is someone I’ve read before. He’s the regular movie reviewer for a news site I read just about every day. I’ve seen many of his previous movie reviews, some of which I agreed with, some that I haven’t. Like many movie reviewers, he approaches his critiques from a literary rather than visual arts point of view. He always talks about plot, themes, narrative flow, viewpoint, characterization, and dialog.

So it’s a little strange that someone who approaches movies from such a strong literary perspective can’t understand the true appeal of any character. Readers have been meeting, getting to know, and coming to love imaginary characters for as long as fiction has existed. Characters like Anne of Green Gables, Oliver Twist, Huck Finn, Sara Crewe, d’Artagnan (and his comrades Athos, Porthos, Aramis), Robin Hood, et cetera have been engaging readers for generations. For much of their history, those characters have been less than even pixels: people have read words on paper, and conjured the face, voice, and being of the character entirely in their imagination.

Yes, illustrated books, live theatre, and various recorded forms of movies and series have also breathed life into those imaginary characters, but those are all simply different forms of conveying and evoking the idea of the character in the minds of each of the viewers. It is still, ultimately, about the imagination of the audience embracing the story and the characters within it.

As a writer, I deal with imaginary characters constantly. My head is full of a mad assortment of characters, some of them characters I have created for my own stories, others are characters I have come to love (or love to hate) through stories created by other people. When I’m writing a story, my job is to try to evoke in the reader the story that I have imagined. An important part of that process is evoking characters that the reader will, at least temporarily, imagine as if they were real. And more importantly, will have feelings toward as if they were real.

That’s the entire point of art, to engage the audience, and make a connection between hearts and imaginations. And it doesn’t matter whether I’m telling a story verbally, in text, on stage, with painted images, or computer rendered animation. It doesn’t matter if the characters are named Jenny Nelson or Buffy Summers or Zoe Washburne or Applejack.

What matters is the story.

For at least a few minutes, can I make you care about what happens to these characters? Can I make you interested in how they got into the situation they find themselves in? Can I make you wonder what’s going to happen next? Can I so engage you that you can’t look away until you know how things turned out for the character?

Getting the audience engaged with the characters is never a bad thing. And if you think that some fictional characters are less “real” than others simply because of the medium through which the audience’s imagination is being engaged, then you don’t understand storytelling.

At all.

Too much backstory

In order to write a character’s dialog correctly, I have to have a good image in my head of who he or she is. That doesn’t mean I need to know eye color and hair length and how they dress, necessarily—I’m using image metaphorically. I mean that part of the process of giving a character a personality is imagining their life and how they got to be who they are now.

This is for everyone, even walk-on characters who may have only one or two lines of dialog out of an entire novel. I’m not one of those authors who has to write all of that down before I can use the character. Walk-ons usually just pop up when I need them. I’ve put my protagonist in jail, let’s say, and I’d planned who his cellmate would be before I got to the scene, but I hadn’t thought much about any other prisoners. As I start writing the scene between the protagonist and his cellmate, the other prisoners just chimed in at appropriate parts. While I don’t know the names of any of them, I have a small sketch in my mind of each one’s personality and a bit of his or her history, too. It just blossomed as soon as I needed someone to make a humorous interjection.

That’s just the walk-ons. Supporting characters that are planned as parts of subplots have quite a bit more than that, while the main characters have even more.

Most of the backstory remains in my head and my notes. My stories tend to be character- and dialog- driven, so usually the only details about a character’s background that come up are the ones that would normally occur in conversation:

“You always have to be smarter than everyone else, don’t you?”

“There was a time when you found that endearing.”

“I grew up!”

Even without any description or names, reading that dialog tells you that these two have known each other a long time, that they used to be close (perhaps even romanticaly involved), and now they are less friendly. I may never reveal more about the past experiences between these two characters, but I know how they met, how long they were close, how they spent their time together, and how they had their falling out.

Usually I’m pretty good about not letting the backstory over shadow the current action. But not always. Especially if I get some characters together in a scene who are very talkative. The dialog can go on and on for a while, if I let them.

During re-write I always find some scenes like this, filled with a lot of interesting banter, but that I need to trim. When reading the scenes aloud, even just by myself, I can tell when they’re going on too long. Fortunately, usually it only takes a little pruning to punch up the scene and get things moving.

But sometimes that backstory includes information the reader needs, and it isn’t always clear until I get a reader’s perspective that some details I thought could be inferred weren’t obivous.

I have a couple of supporting characters I’m working with right now whose scenes I was trimming the last couple of nights. They’re both intresting characters. I’ve gotten feedback indicating readers like them. (Even though in the current novel they don’t have any scenes together, one of them had a short story of his own published a few years ago, and the other happened to be a supporting chracter in it.) But they’re only supporting characters in this tale, and the parts they have to play in the current story aren’t big enough to justify all that information.

Even though I saved the removed dialog elsewhere, it still hurts to trim it.

But when it’s too much, it has to go!

%d bloggers like this: