Characters are the beings, the actors, of story. They can be human, animal, mechanical, or any combination of any of the above. Readers like character in which they can relate.
Last week, you learned about how to start a character bible by determining your character’s physical appearance and personality and include them in your books character bible. This week you’re going to dig deeper into your characters’ backstory and his or her wants and goals.
What is Your Character’s Baggage?
Everyone comes into a relationship with some sort of baggage so do characters. They can’t simply be dropped into a story, they must come from somewhere. We all have a past and if we want our characters to seem real, they also have a history that affects why they act as they do now.
Remember your backstory is not your main story, so don’t let it dominate it. Keep this at the forefront of your mind as you continue to edit the story that you are trying to tell.
Use your backstory to explain your character’s development and to help raise the stakes. We are all products of nature and nurture. For better or for worse, our genetics and significant events mold us throughout our lives. A bad childhood, an abusive relationship, a lost love, an inspiring mentor, a challenging event that made us or broke us, all create additional motivation and obstacles to our character’s success or failure.
A mouse phobia could be caused by an event that occurred in childhood which then affects an event during the story that the protagonist must overcome.
Relate Backstory to Your Story ARC
Don’t make the backstory more interesting than the main story arc. If your backstory starts to take over your main plot, you may be telling the wrong story. Your beta readers or editor may pick up on this and may be able to help you determine how you allowed your backstory to become too central to your story.
Characters also have a progressive arc and the backstory is part of it. The backstory demonstrates how the character got to the beginning of the story, and then relates to how your character grows and changes over the course of your novel. This is especially true with the protagonist’s ARC. By giving your character trials that are particularly significant in terms of the character’s personal psychology and having the character successfully overcome the trial, the reader will see the logical progression in that character’s ARC.
Including Backstory in Your Novel
Avoid making your backstory too obvious. Introduce the information so your reader doesn’t feel jolted into realizing that you’re filling them in on what happened in the past but make it as a logical and reasonable introduction to the information.
Don’t just include backstory for the sake of filling up space either. Use backstory to explain why something happened. Dropping a block of information into it brings the story to a halt. Make it seem a natural. An incident in the story could be a way for the character to relate the current incident with an incident from his or her past.
A technique used in many old movies is to use diaries, journals, newspaper clippings or other secondary sources to give the backstory. You can do this even if your protagonist is reluctant to think about this backstory consciously, but you can let the reader in on the secret.
Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story. Don’t think that you have to include all the character’s backstory verbatim. You shouldn’t dump all the character’s backstory into your novel. There is an art to including the right about of backstory to enhance your story. Backstory can be explained through dialogue and the way the character thinks or the way the character reacts to specific situations and people.
Flashbacks, Dream Sequences and Dialogue
Sometimes the reader needs to learn the backstory as quickly and efficiently as possible. When this is the case, ignore the “show, don’t tell” advice you’ve always heard and just tell the readers what they need to know in a sentence or two. Most of the time, however, back story can be made more interesting when dramatized. This can be done in a flashback, dream sequence or dialogue where one character describes an incident to another. Whatever the case, be sure to keep the dramatization as grounded and concrete as the rest of your story.
If you are dramatizing the backstory, have a natural trigger in the story for it. Don’t just have a character just start talking about something in his or her backstory. An incident or even a strong sensory impression like a smell or a song can be used to bring back the recollection.
Watch your language. If you are describing a flashback, write the first couple of sentences in past perfect tense to signal a shift to a more distant past for the reader. You can then settle back into past tense for the remainder of the flashback until you reach the end. At that point, past perfect tense can signal the end of the flashback. Another technique for showing the readers placing a dramatization at the begin or the end of a chapter.
Reveal bits of backstory little by little. You can even use this technique to create stronger suspense for your reader as they wait to learn more about a character’s mysterious past.
Give Your Characters Goals
Another essential component to add to your character bible is in identifying character goals.
A goal may be based on a promise or the result of a bet. It might be lofty or earthy.
Critical to the story are the protagonist’s (main character) goals (what he wants), motivation (why he’s going after what he wants), and conflict (conflict with himself, others, their goals, or something in the setting).
He is opposed or challenged by the antagonist, another character with goals and motivations of his own. Their conflict is one of the major drivers of the plot.
Main characters, both protagonist and antagonist, have friends who help them achieve their goals and prevent their opponent from reaching his. Additional characters can enhance the setting and create opportunities for even more conflict. The goals and motivations of these characters can also add depth to a story.
There may be much more to the pursuit of them than a character could ever imagine.
Character goals are character objectives. They are a place a character must reach for or get to, a task he must complete, an enemy or monster he must conquer.
The character desires something. If the desire is strong enough, the character will pursue the goal. If that desire is strong enough and the character is thwarted—especially by someone that the character doesn’t want to get the best of him or her. He or she will work even harder to achieve his or her goal.
The character’s goal may have cause him or her to ignore rules or laws. The character’s goals may push beyond accepted and acceptable behavior. These goals may be so strong that the character physically/mentally/spiritually ruining the character’s reputation.
Character goals move the novel forward. Without character goals, the story goes nowhere. Disorganized goals prove to be aimless and without direction. Without character goals, a novel has little purpose and have an incomplete structure.
He has goals that drive him, that allow him no respite because someone’s going to die if he doesn’t achieve them. If he fails, someone’s going to hate him forever, or greatly disappointed. Perhaps he will disappoint himself, or he’ll let somebody down.
Types of Character Goals
Your main character’s goal may be an immediate gratification goal, a save-the-world goal, or a private-self goal.
The short-term immediate gratification goals are important to move a story from scene to scene, but for a book, your character needs long term goals. Easy goals or short-term goals may come into play for a scene or for several chapters (think subplots), but characters need potent long-term goals to get them through everything thrown at them.
The saving the world goal is ideal for some genre novels. Your protagonist might literally save the world. However, not all save-the-world goals are literally about saving the world. These are simply external goals that a character reaches for outside himself and saves his little world in some way.
In addition to saving the world, save the world goals includes things like: save the princess, recover a treasure, discover a new world where mankind can make a fresh start, destroy the enemy, uncover the plot, diffuse the bomb, neutralize the pathogen, identify the murderer, get a wife back, graduate from college, or complete a masterpiece.
Protecting the self, the third goal type, would work well for a literary novel. Here, the protagonist might have to discover who he is, or try to hide his nature from others to protect himself from some sort of harm. He may try to protect the status quo and not rock the boat. Perhaps he takes the other extreme and decided to shake things up so that he can discover who he is and where he’s from. This protecting-the self is an internal goal and is often much more personal than the external kind.
Personal or internal goals: prove himself, to not be found wanting, be a success, persevere, show himself a better man than his father (or better than his father’s predictions), succeed or die trying, make it one more day, not kill himself, do it alone, ask for help, show himself a friend, love unconditionally, love for the first time.
You could also use both saving the world and self-protecting goals. This set up creates a powerful story and riveting characters. You could drive him relentlessly, playing the goals off each other so he has no choice but to succeed, no option to turn back.
Next week we’ll dig a little deeper into the most important characters in your story—the protagonist and the antagonist.
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