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Friday, 24 October 2014

Building a Back-Story

I hate to be disappointed by a book but I read quite a few manuscripts and quite a few published books where the back-story seems scant. These are the books where, however hard I try, I just can't relate to the main characters, and however pacy the plot, the story does not satisfy me.

As a beginner writer, I too was guilty of skimping on the back-story but one day, when struggling with plot, I had a light-bulb moment. I realised that if I knew my characters well enough, what they were afraid of, what they wanted above all else, then the twists and turns of the plot would generally reveal themselves. And so it has turned out. If you struggle with your plots then I can guarantee that taking the time to build up your characters will make the writing process a lot, lot easier.

And that is one of the keys - taking time. Getting to knowing your characters with all of their blessings and flaws cannot be done in a hurry. It takes time to work out their hopes and fears as well as their parentage, their siblings, their characteristics and whether these were as a result of nature or nurture. It sounds complicated and time-consuming but it isn't really. You can be thinking about it whilst driving or shopping or washing up. It can be such fun, getting to know the people you are going to write about, who in the case of a long book, are going to be part of your life for a long time.

So these are some of the questions I ask myself when building my back-story.

What is it that my main character wants above all else?

What motivates them to strive for this?

What do my characters need?
(This can be quite different to what it is they actually want).

What do they doubt?

Who/what are they afraid of?

Who do they look up to?

What was their childhood like?

Is there someone in the family they are particularly close to?

What do they wear? 
(Clothes communicate a lot about a person).

How do they talk/walk?

Here are some of my beginning notes for the hero's mother in my next adult romance:-

'Jane is 60 and recently widowed. Her husband was 13 years older. She was 21 when she married and always deferred to him. She wears a large solitaire engagement ring alongside her platinum wedding band and likes to drink tea from a china cup and saucer. She escapes to the garden whenever there is a problem and knows the Latin names for all of her plants.She could become a good friend to Rachel (my heroine). This inter-generational friendship is an interesting possibility, especially as Rachel cannot rely on her own mother for sound advice, due to her nervous disposition.'

From these few lines I had the basis for my character and went on to describe her appearance and delve into the relationship with both of her sons. She developed depth and as so many authors say 'took on a life of her own'. I didn't necessarily use all of the information which I wrote down but that didn't matter. What mattered was I knew her, inside and out. I knew how she would react in any given circumstance. I knew her weaknesses and her strengths and what she wanted from her life. And because I knew her well I became very fond of her but also quite exasperated by her behaviour at times!

So, taking the time to build up your back-story is definitely worth doing. You will not regret the time spent even if the temptation is strong to just plough straight into the story. When writing a children's story, the same rules apply, whether your characters are human or animal. It is important to ask questions and to know them really well.

This is a constant reminder which I have posted up on the wall.

If I were this character in these circumstances what would I do?

I try to refer to this question with all of my characters, even the minor ones, so that no-one acts out of character, or if they do, there is a good explanation for it.

There are a lot more questions you can ask about your main characters as well, favourite food, places to go on holiday, do they like dogs etc. etc. The more you know about them the stronger they will be and the stronger your story will be.

Thank-you for reading. I hope for those of you who are beginning your writing journey and for those of you who get stuck with your plots, this will have helped. Wishing you all a very good week.

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