In your mind, and hopefully in your reader’s mind, your characters need to become real. That means they are not the most glamorous, intelligent, adept, perfect-in-every-way people with the capability to walk on water. Real people are a complex mix of strengths, weaknesses, talents, and flaws, things that have a big impact on them and on the story. Flaws are especially important because they create biases leading to the way people act, react, think, and behave; however, assembling your character(s) is not like mixing a cake—throwing a bunch of ingredients in a bowl then stir.
Time and again, writers are warned to avoid backstory. As it pertains to your characters, a backstory is vital to their creation because it describes, if to no one else except the writer, WHY a character behaves the way they do. A little of that story sprinkled throughout the story “can deepen conflict, reveal motivation and elicit sympathy for a [character].” (See–Emma Hamilton, author and editor), or not used all, but it is a story that must be told.
When inspiration smacks the back of a writer’s head, the first thing is to write down a quick synopsis of the plot with an eye on what the main character is to accomplish (the goal). Of course, no journey is smooth even if on a yellow brick road. The protagonist must face challenges. That individual’s backstory is going to dictate how they deal with the potholes, turns, and detours within the story.
If a writer plots first, the protagonist can become the perfect person who handles any difficulties perfectly. (James Bond?) If a writer creates the protagonist first and assigns flaws, the plot might become inadvertently shaped to accommodate those flaws and that character comes off as a perfect person. So, what to do?
Every story has a beginning and an end—the protagonist’s goal. By drafting the plot out in rough form, a writer becomes aware of the kind of characters that will be needed. At this point, gender, age, and role is sufficient—hero, protagonist, villain, mentor, etc. For example:
A 14 year old boy is orphaned shortly after the American Civil War. He lived in backwoods Missouri with little formal education. On her deathbed, the mother charges her son to find the brother and only other surviving member of the boy’s family who went to fight the war in Texas. He travels from Missouri, through Texas, and eventually to Arizona encountering bandits, a family that employs and helps him learn about the world, a travel companion, battles Indians and bullies, is adopted by the Apache Indians, marries an Indian girl, and finally finds his brother.
Age 14; poorly educated; left handed; birthmark back of left hand (“Mark of the Devil”).
Strengths/Attributes: Quick tempered, impulsive, forgiving.
Weakness/Flaws/Quirks: Quotes from Bible to justify his actions; truthful; loyal; dependable; determined; resourceful; naive.
There are a number of web sites providing long lists of character flaws from which to choose (check out Pintrest.com) (an upcoming post will provide a number of helpful links), but those are only brief descriptors. Dig deeper to better understand the causes, actions, and ramifications of a chosen flaw. For this character, what does it mean to be an abused child? What are the repercussions of abuse? The answer suggests behaviors like avoiding or resisting comforting, and having difficulty forming relationships—withdrawn. He might suffer from depression and anxiety. He could seek the approval of others which translates his mind as “love,” even if those others are not “saints.” He will have nightmares (a way to sneak in snippets of backstory.) Finally, there is some display of violent behavior (getting back for being hurt by his father and brother.) As you see, the protagonist is becoming a “real” complex person whose makeup dictates action and reaction—a real person to the reader.
Now, drop the character into the story and send him off to Arizona adding friends, bandits, prostitutes, Indians, racial bigotry, geographical challenges, and adverse weather, and see what happens. Unless the writer has plotted himself into a dead end, the character is either going to deal with these situations based on who and what he is, or change. The outcome the writer intended may not be what happens at which point the plot has taken on a life of its own as the story heads down the brick road.
Wrapping up, some steps that should be taken in your story are:
- Give the hero/protagonist (and those closely associated in achieving or blocking the goal) flaws demonstrated through their actions.
- Give the protagonist more than one weakness.
- Provide a moral weakness—an inner conflict of acting contrary to one’s beliefs.
- Gradually reveal character flaws through the character’s actions.
- Show how the character has changed by the end of story.
** Don’t overload a character with too much baggage **
By researching and writing an extensive backstory for a character, the writer comes to know them intimately, even to entering into a symbiotic relationship that can bring out some very powerful writing.