I have just finished rereading a story I wrote a few months ago. It’s not terrible, but there’s something wrong. There is a beginning, middle and end. There is a conflict and a resolution. I described the setting in loving detail. There is a touch of magic in the story’s plot. And the two main characters are vibrant, interesting women whom I care about. But as I read this morning, I realized that these characters who live fully developed in my head, do not come to life properly on the page. If you were to read the story as is, I don’t think you would care about the women the way I do. How do I change this? I need to revisit my back story.
When I joined Sister Writes, I wanted to learn specific techniques and skills that would help me write an interesting story that would catch a reader’s attention. I knew one of the key elements was creating great characters, but I wasn’t sure how to do this. I discovered that behind all great characters is a back story that the author has written- a mini biography of that person. This bio contains all the details about the character’s life. The more specific the details, the easier it is to paint a vivid picture of the character for the reader. The back story can include your character’s likes, dislikes, fears, dreams, things that embarrass her, things she is proud of and things she wishes she had never done. Looking back to the bio I created for one of my women, I see that I wrote: “her mother always told her that she had a gift- the ability to see what others cannot, but this gift had been useless when it came to preventing her father from drinking himself to death.” I included physical details here too- she is 5 feet, 6 inches, with light brown hair whose auburn highlights brighten in the summer sun, fair skin and eyes that you expect to be green but are instead a piercing blue. As I wrote my bio, this character came alive for me. I could imagine her reaction to events. I could write dialogue that seemed natural. In some ways this writing process is like getting to know a new person in real life. They gradually reveal themselves to you and sometimes you are pleasantly surprised and sometimes shocked at what they do or say.
The whole idea of back story was a revelation for me. I saw that one of the keys to writing with authority and confidence was knowing that you have a firm grip on who your characters are. Back story writing is fun. You can let your imagination soar. You have free rein to experiment with scenarios and feelings. It feels like you have a blank canvas and you can paint with whatever colours you choose, letting the brush guide you. If a character is not interesting enough to warrant your time and attention, that should come clear at this stage. Remember that if you aren’t fascinated by the character, you can’t expect your reader to care about them, but when the portrait you have painted is true and vibrant, there is no better feeling. With a living, breathing character in your imagination you can craft wonderful stories.
Here’s the tricky part- taking the essence of that living, breathing character and recreating her for your reader. Because you can’t include the whole back story in your narrative. It’s too much information and it will slow your story down and turn your reader off. Reviewing my story, I see that I made two fatal errors. First, I didn’t include enough vivid character details and when I did include details I often used narrative rather than action to get my point across. I allowed my love of description to take over. The scenes were so real for me in my head that I thought I could just write them down word for word and they would make sense to the reader. But it comes across as tedious rather than exciting. As writers, our job is to get our readers’ attention so that they want to read on. They are on our side but not indefinitely. If we haven’t hooked them in the first 3 or 4 paragraphs they may give up. I need to bring back the image of a painter and focus on using “quick, sharp brushstrokes” to convey the heart of my characters. Jack Hodgins, in A Guide for Writing Fiction says: “…the most memorable characters will sometimes leap to life in a single moment that reveals a unique and peculiar detail of manner, or a unique and peculiar turn of phrase in dialogue…something…so sharp and fresh and singular that it automatically contains within it all the rest I need to know about the character.”
I am returning to my back story for help. I am going to reacquaint myself with the reasons I wrote about these women in the first place. I think they are worth reading about, I just need to ensure my reader’s think so too.
Here are a couple of exercises you can try at home that can help you get to the heart of a character’s motivations and feelings. Grab a piece of paper and your favourite pen and get ready to write:
- Start a story with a person running. Where she/he is and what she/he is running from (or to) is up to you. Write for 10 minutes. Use the momentum of running to bring this character into focus quickly.
- Create a musical playlist for a character. What’s their favourite song of all time? What music do they listen to in the car? What music do they work out to? What song makes them cry?
- Write 3 diary/journal entries for a character, from his/her viewpoint. This is a journal, so the entries should reveal emotion and feelings.
Til next time, keep writing.