October 14, 2011

Backstory (and why it matters)

I've just read my fabulous crit partner Ryan's post on the importance of backstory - I've thought about backstory so much this week that I'm hitching a ride on the back of her thought process.

If novel #2 (otherwise known as Torn) has taught me anything, it's that there are so many things you need to know about your characters in order to bring them to life. I'm not just talking looks, ticks, and speech patterns; I have to know about the whole span of their lives in order to understand their motivations. So much of their background hasn't made it to the surface of my story. But every piece of knowledge, evident or not, has helped me to stay true to my characters' voices. There's nothing quite as fun as discovering something new about your story just when you thought you had it all figured out.

Things I learned about my three main characters this week:

1. One likes foreign films, but he's a terrible reader.
2. One can't dance.
3. One has a violent aversion to socks.
4. The one thing they all have in common: life-changing experiences with dead bodies.

And then there are the backstories of my support characters - these are the ones who are giving me trouble. I'm finding it difficult to flesh them out without letting their voices take over the narrative. A teacher of mine, Kim Wilkins, once said this about supporting characters: you never want it to feel like they 'go back in a box when they're off the main stage. So how do you make sure minor characters aren't coming off as cardboard cutouts? Here are some of my findings:

- Every SC should have a defining role to play in the main characters' lives. What is their specific function and place? My character Dalton was pretty flat until I realized that he's my MC's secret keeper; he's the one she feels most comfortable sharing with.

- When SCs are becoming cliche, give them some interesting contradictions. They're phobic about germs but refuse to wear socks outside. Or whatever. Contradictions are what make people unique.

- Don't just give SCs traits; give them relationships with their traits.

- Spend time crafting the MCs' relationship with their SCs. It's often through the main characters' descriptions and feelings towards their supporting cast that readers really get to know them.  

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