Knowing and incorporating back story into your novel

This post is the sixteenth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

Before you began writing, I suggested you develop your characters. This not only saves you in rewriting but the characters will be more realistic and their behavior consistent if you know them well. One of the ways to do this is to develop your characters’ back story. The back story is your character’s history – the event and circumstances that made them into the person they are today.

Reasons you should know your character’s backstory

  • You will know which major events in their past may affect their motivation during the main story arc
  • You are able to inject subtle clues about your character’s past into your narrative which can create mystery and interest for your reader
  • Your character’s past may be a major driving force of the main plot
  • By understanding your character’s history, you may discover the perfect opening scene for your story

Now you don’t have to know all this for every character. But you should know it for your main characters. Everything in their past as well as their innate personality traits will dictate their action, which in turn drives the plot of your story.

Creating character back story can be a time-consuming task. But doing so will build strong, solid characters that come to life for your readers.

Now you may be wondering why I am discussing building their back story when this is something that should have been done before you began writing. I am bringing this up now because as you write your story, you may want to incorporate some of this back story into your novel.

But how do you do this? And does your reader really need to know this?

The basic rule of thumb is to tell the reader only what he or she needs to know to understand what is happening in the story at that moment.

Basically, you want to add the back story in little bits – a couple of sentences here and there. You don’t want large blocks of text. This stops the momentum of the story. Writing about back story stagnates your story. It is telling the reader information rather than showing them. It doesn’t engage any of the reader’s senses. They are no longer actively participating in the story. They are busy reading background that might or might not be relevant to the action that is about to start.

I read on another website a good way to think about this. Consider adding back story in terms of taking bites. You can’t eat a whole cake in one bite. However, you can eat it by taking lots of little bites. Trying to eat a cake in one bite could cause you to choke. It is the same with back story; include it in small bits so the reader doesn’t choke.

Because back story slows down the reader, one place you want to make sure you DO NOT include a lot of back story is in the beginning of your story. You only have a few pages to hook the reader so use those pages to give them action. Yes, your character might be motivated by their past, but the opening pages isn’t the place to go into depth about that past.

Back story is important in character development but just because you spent the time developing that information doesn’t mean you need to incorporate all of it into your story. Remember that the best fiction is all about action. Your job is to portray the action and let the reader draw his or her own conclusion. And it is easier to do this with well-developed characters whose actions are consistent with the back stories.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

#7 – The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot

#8 – To Outline or not to outline 

#9 – The importance of a story arc

#10 – The importance of tension and pace

#11 – Prologue and opening scenes

#12 – Beginning and ending scenes in a novel

#13 – The importance of dialogue…and a few tips on how to write it

#14 – Using Internal Dialogue in your novel

#15 – More dialogue tips and help with dialogue tags

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Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

This post is the fifth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

Last week, I gave a quick overview of ways to delve into naming your characters as well as establishing their backgrounds and characteristics. Most of what I wrote pertains to your major characters. You do not need to do as much (or sometimes any) work on minor characters.

Major Characters

Major characters include your protagonist, your protagonist’s sidekick and your antagonist (and perhaps his sidekick/major underling).

These are the people that are clearly going to impact your plot. These are the characters you will need to develop fully. You will need to know beyond their physical characteristics and personality traits and flaws. You will need to know their history and what happened to make them the way they are at the beginning of your story.

Sidekicks

Batman has Robin. Harry Potter has Ronald Weasley. Fred has Barney, while Frodo Baggins has Samwise Gamgee. And who could forget, Han Solo and Chewbacca. Yep, we are talking about sidekicks.

Not every hero needs a sidekick but they sure can help. A sidekick gives your hero someone to rationalize their actions to or discuss their options. But a sidekick can be more than a sounding board. They can offer support, help devise a way to defeat the bad guy and even come to your hero’s rescue. The sidekick often knows the main character better than anyone else and can give the reader a convincing reason to like the hero.

The key with any sidekick is to develop them fully. They should have their own virtues, faults, hopes, dreams, and problems. In other words, you need to develop them just as much as you develop your protagonist.

Antagonist

Your antagonist, the person that will try to thwart your hero and provide conflict for your story, is one of the most important characters to develop. Most authors spend a majority of their time developing their protagonist but don’t give the same effort to the “bad” guy.

Now typically when one thinks of the antagonist of a story – especially a fantasy novel – one thinks of the person as being a bad person – perhaps even evil. You, as the author, need to understand how they came to be like they are. Everyone has a reason for what they do. No one is evil just to be evil. It can be their quest for power, revenge, or even a mental disorder, but there needs to be something the drives this character. We are the culmination of our environment, our genetics, our past, and our choices. You need to know these things about your antagonist though all of them may never actually appear in your story. (Check out this list of motivations for antagonists.)

To help create a well-rounded antagonist, consider giving him some redeeming qualities. And by this I mean something other than he likes puppies. Almost no one is evil all the time. And remember that sometimes the bad guy wins. Not every instance does the hero of the story need to thwart the villain.

Of course, your antagonist does not have to be a bad person. It can easily be someone whose ideas don’t mesh with your protagonist. It could be a business partner who wants to have a successful business no matter what the cost. Your hero may also want the business to succeed but needs to be a man of integrity. These two characters are far from enemies, but their different needs pull them in opposing directions.

And your antagonist may not be one person but a group or even just an obstacle to overcome such as the fear of speaking in front of an audience. But you simply don’t have a story without an obstacle, conflict or bad guy so be sure to create a strong antagonist, and you will have a better, more believable story.

Minor Characters

Minor characters are the opposite of major characters. Very little is usually written about them. They may appear in a scene or two but aren’t likely to influence the outcome of the story.

Many of these characters are flat, two-dimensional types that could easily be replaced. As an author, you are not going to spend the time to flesh these people out before writing.

Heck, some of these minor characters may not even have names. The bartender or cab driver may be such a character. They may speak and interact in the scene, but their contribution is negligible.

There will be many characters who may fall in between major and minor but don’t waste your time trying to categorize each one. Simply decide how important they are to the story, and that will let you know how much time to spend on them.

For tips on dealing with a long list of characters in your novel, check out my post “Novel writing: Dealing with a large cast of characters.”

Next week, I will talk about the setting of your novel.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

Q is for Questions #AtoZChallenge

For the A to Z Challenge, I have chosen the theme of antagonists.

On my normal blogging days, Monday – parenting and Thursday – writing/publishing, I will tie that day’s topic to antagonists but on the other days (Tuesday, Friday and Saturday), I will write about antagonists from movies, TVs or books. On Wednesdays, my Quote of the Week will be from an antagonist that matches the letter of the day. Enjoy.

Today is the letter Q, which is for Questions. A good way to get to know your antagonist is to conduct a character interview. This fun exercise can give you a lot of insight into your antagonist, and the better you know him/her, the easier it will be to bring them to life.

You can either get someone to ask you a list of questions or play both the interviewer and interviewee. But all responses should be done as if you are the antagonist. This means that their word choice, manner and attitude should be reflected in their answers.

The key is to ask open-ended questions so your character has to elaborate beyond a simple “yes” or “no.”  So instead of asking, “Were you scared when you were kidnapped?” ask “What was going through your head at the moment you were grabbed?”

Try to stick with questions that will benefit your story. You want to uncover the goals and motivation of your antagonist. And you might just uncover some of their soft spots too.

Need help coming up with questions? Here is a website that lists 50 Questions you can ask your antagonist.

And in case you want to check out my other antagonists from the challenge…

A is for Apocalypse

B is for Bad Boys (parenting)

C is for Cruella de Vil

D is for Darth Vader (Quote)

D is for To Die for Cake (Recipe)

E is for Evil (Writing)

F is for Freddy Kruger

G is for Gollum

H is for High School (parenting)

I is for Iron Monger

J is for Jafar (Quote)

K is for Killers (Writing)

L is for Loki

M is for Maleficent

N is for No (parenting)

O is for Oggie Boogie

P is for Professor Moriarty (Quote)

L is for Lazy characters #AtoZChallenge

For the A to Z Challenge, I have chosen the theme of characters. On my normal blogging days, Monday – parenting, Wednesday – quotes, and Thursday – writing/publishing, I will focus on characteristics. On the other days (Tuesday, Friday and Saturday), I will write about characters from movies, TVs or books.

LToday the letter is L for Lazy Characters.

No, I am not talking about characters who would rather laze around in front of the TV than work. I am talking about authors who are lazy about developing their characters.

You sit down to write a story about a man desolated from a failed marriage who just was fired from the job he held for the past 25 years. If you don’t take the time to learn his history and how he came to be at this place at this point in time, you are either going to have a flat one-dimensional character or will have a lot of re-writing to do as your story develops.

I know that sometimes authors would rather jump right in and start writing the story bumping around in their brain. But if you take the time to develop the character, to get to know the why behind his or her behavior, the character becomes real to the reader. And if you know this character inside and out, your writing job just became easier. You will have less re-writing or editing because you know their actions and behaviors are true to them.

So don’t be lazy. Know the history, the likes and dislikes, the major events in your character’s life and more so that you can write vivid, real people rather than one-dimensional ones that only do as they are told.

If you missed the other days in the A to Z Challenge:

A is for Alice

B is for Belgarath 

C is for Cautious Child

D is for Dana Scully

E is for Enthusiasm (Quote) and Southwestern Eggrolls (Recipe)

F is for Flaky Character 

G is for Gandalf 

H is for Huckleberry Finn

I is for Independence 

J is for Jason Bourne

K is for Kind (Quote)

Negative traits for your characters

Last week, I wrote about positive traits for your characters. But you don’t want a character who can do no wrong or is liked by everyone.

negative 2You need a balanced, well-rounded character. No one has only positive traits. There must be some negative traits in your protagonist (just like your antagonist needs positive traits).

Today I want to look at one of the ways flaws can cause friction between characters as well as go a little more into flaws for your villain.

Negative flaws and friction between characters

Internal Conflict – Self-doubt, bitterness, and jealousy (among others) can create conflict within our characters. Not only can they struggle internally with these feelings but these strong emotions change how our characters behave when interacting with others.

This can lead to sparks, fireworks and explosions in their relationships.

Sparks – Consider this the lowest level of tension or friction between characters. Your character is impatient, frustrated or disappointed or perhaps caused these feelings in one of the supporting cast. This leads to a verbal exchange which adds a strain to a friendship.

Fireworks – Consider this the intermediate level of tension or friction between characters. Emotions here have been kicked up a notch. Arguments ensue and have a lasting impact on the relationship. Healing the rift is possible, but it may take time and effort.

Explosions – Consider this the highest level of tension or friction between characters. This is where raw, uncontrolled anger, betrayal or humiliation come into play. Things may be broken, insults are flung, and secrets might be revealed. Trust is shattered, and relationships are broken. If reconciliation does occur, the relationship is never the same as it was before.

Just like in real life when you argue with your spouse or become annoyed with your brother, mother, or friend, these same things need to happen to your characters.

Villains and their flaws

As I said before, you should not create a villain with only negative flaws. You need to let the reader catch a glimpse of a redeeming quality or two.

The antagonist has dreams, needs and desires. In his eyes, his goals are just and reasonable. Often his negative traits are fuel for moving forward with his plan. Many negative traits are just positive ones taken too far.

You need to work just a hard on your antagonist as you do your protagonist. Delve into his past and find out what made him the way he is today. Remember no one is born evil or bad. Something (often many things) helped shaped who they are today.

negative 1If you need help on what negative traits to give your character – controlling, gullible, obsessive, temperamental or whiny – or perhaps you don’t know what types of behaviors would be associated with these traits, then I would recommend checking out The Negative Trait Thesaurus.

This guide discusses everything I mentioned above with more details and then lists 106 negative traits along with associated behaviors/thoughts as well as what type of positive and negative aspects this attribute can have on a character. It also lists examples and challenging scenario ideas for characters with these traits.

 

Positive traits for your characters

Last week, I wrote about the importance of having a well-rounded character and for you, the author, to have a complete understanding of the history and makeup of our characters.

positive 1To be well-rounded, a character needs both positive and negative traits and behaviors. No one wants to read about a character who never does anything wrong or fails. Without a few mistakes or failures, there will be no conflict in your story and conflict is what drives a story along.

Today, I want to look at positive traits and how they might have developed.

Genetics – Some things are out of our control. We are born with a certain body type or an aptitude for music. Some of us are extroverts while others are more calm-natured. Sometimes whether someone is always cheery or a down-and-out sour puss can just be the way they were born.

Upbringing – Some of our characteristics are brought about by the way we were raised. A child absorbs the traits and values of the one raising them. If order and structure are what they grew up with, they may follow in those same steps. Or they could rebel against those beliefs and go in the totally opposite direction.

Physical Environment – Where you grew up (as well as your current living conditions) play a big part in making you who you are. There is a difference in a character who grew up in the suburbs as opposed to someone who grew up in a poorer or perhaps tougher neighborhood. Growing up on a farm or in poverty or in one of the richest families will all have different effects on a person and the characteristics they develop.

Peers – Your friends and colleagues often greatly influence your life. Some characteristics may develop that are shared among peers as a way of fitting in and gaining acceptance.

Negative Experiences – While these often result in flaws, they can also make positive traits develop. Someone who grew up in an abusive family may strive to be a nurturing parent to their child.

All of these things help make your character who he or she is. This is why you need to know them inside and out. You need to know your character’s fears, needs, desires, like and dislikes. Basically, before you begin writing you need to develop the back story of your protagonist and your antagonist.

Yes – you do need to know just as much about your antagonist as you do your protagonist. You need to know what he wants and why he is so desperate to achieve it. Figuring out his internal motivations will help make him real. Your reader will be able to understand what drives him and why he will do anything necessary to succeed. And your villain won’t just be chock-full of negative attributes. They need some positive ones too.

positive 2If you need help on what positive attributes to give your character – adaptable, loyal, organized, trusting or whimsical – or perhaps you don’t know what types of behaviors would be associated with these traits, then I would recommend checking out The Positive Trait Thesaurus.

This guide discusses everything I mentioned above with more details and then lists 99 positive attributes along with associated behaviors/thoughts as well as what type of positive and negative aspects this attribute can have on a character. It also lists examples and challenging scenario ideas for characters with these traits.

Next week, I will post about the negative attributes your character might have.

Developing Character Back Story #AtoZChallenge

BToday is day 2 of the A to Z Challenge. The letter of the day is B which is for Back Story.

I have written before about incorporating back story into your novel but today I wanted to focus on building your character back story. This is something that you need to do BEFORE you begin writing. And not all of this backstory will make it into the story but it will help you develop strong, believable characters.

Now you don’t have to do this for all characters but for your main characters, you will need to know the events and circumstances that made them the person they are today. Everything in their past as well as their innate personality traits will dictate their action, which in turn drives the plot of your story.

Reasons you should know your character’s backstory

  • You will know which major events in their past may affect their motivation during the main story arc
  • You are able to inject subtle clues about your character’s past into your narrative which can create mystery and interest your reader
  • Your character’s past may be a major driving force of the main plot
  • By understanding your character’s history, you may discover the perfect opeing scene for your story

At the very minimum, you should know the basics for every character – what they look like, what occupation they have and a general sense of what they want.

For your main characters (and some minor characters) you should know even more of their history. To do this, you can fill out a character worksheet, create a timeline or write a short narrative.

Character Worksheet

These list the physical description (age, height, manner of dress, etc.), personal characteristics (goals, hobbies, likes, dislikes, etc.), living situation (occupation, home, pets) and background (birthplace, education, family) of your character. You can probably find an actual worksheet somewhere online. Or email me and I will send you the one I have. (I will admit that I don’t use this as it doesn’t lend itself to fantasy characters as well as it would characters in a more contemporary setting.)

Timeline/Outline

Another option is to create a timeline or outline of your characters history. Starting with their birth, add in other major events that happened to your character up until the time the story begins. These would need to be extensive for major characters and could be sparser for minor characters.

Narrative

If you don’t want to do an outline or a timeline, you may just want to write a couple paragraghs (or pages) that chronical their lives. You just need to be sure to include all the basics – family life, education, likes, and major events and so on.

Creating character back story can be a time-consuming task. But doing so will build strong, solid characters that come to life for your readers.