Category Archives: Backstory

Baggage builds character in us and in them.

Writing Internal Conflict

What causes internal conflict in our characters?

tug-40797_1280Want vs Need:  Often a character is torn between what they need and what they want. An example is marrying for love or money. Another might be keeping a child or giving them up for adoption.

The more heartfelt the choice and its consequences the deeper the inner conflict.

Recovering from past wounds: All our characters should have a backstory full of past wounds and regrets. These wounds will only heal if they are confronted and conquered. Until then the inner pain will stop the character from chasing their dreams or desires.

Dragging baggage through a story or letting it go can be a huge source of inner conflict.

Beliefs and assumptions: How a characters sees their world shapes their reactions within it. An example is their world is a cold place to raise a child, so they may go to great lengths to prevent conception. Another would be if they could only find love then everything would be okay.

It doesn’t matter if the belief or assumption is true. What matters is how the character choose to behave because of what they believe.

Armor or mask: Some characters present a false self to their world. They keep tug-40797_1280aa wall around them or wear a mask as they interact with the world and the other characters in it. Fear of rejection or of judgement can put the mask in place, but emotional armor doesn’t really protect anyone.

In mysteries, its purpose is to hide the killer.

A common source of inner conflicts is fear: What frightens a character the most? Change? Exposure? The truth? Fear of never learning from past mistakes, phobias, torn between two possible futures—making a decision and living with it forever.

Fear of the unknown.

Each conflict demands the character make a conscience choice, commit to it and accept consequences. This can happen once, or repeatedly depending on the character’s journey.

Which is your favorite inner conflict?

Gleaned from:

Think You Need Therapy? So Do Most Main Characters.

Last time I brought up building character we talked about baggage and what it does for our cast of players. The funny thing is that like us some of them should get some help. The most eccentric characters can be the most fun. I’m not saying that all characters have to be completely mad, but a fear of spiders, being disgusted when their hair gets messed or a guest not using a coaster does add flavor.

The most well rounded, stable and what we used to call normal people are not the best choice for a main character. They are much too middle of the road to be entertaining, unless you throw a cream pie at them. Well, that’s always funny.

But seriously, normal people have a place in the supporting cast–shoulder to cry on, sage with wise advice, etc. They cope too easily with misfortune, and don’t have an emotional range that an entertaining story requires. Staying in character is a must, so normal doesn’t just throw a hissy fit when it suits the writer. Big no-no that.

Characters can bring humor to a tale, but the darker the problems they carry with them the darker the story can become which leads to the decision making process.

After you decide if your story will be a light read or psychological thriller, you’ll decide on the cast of characters you’ll need to bring it to life. This is also where plot and characterization snowball and evolve together. Here is when I make a general outline–mostly of plot points, and decide on how the characters will interact with each other and the future events.

What I try to do: I imagine a group of people trying to attain personal goals while events beyond their control take place. I already know that some characters will have agendas that have nothing to do with the story. For this example I’ll use a murder mystery because the lines are pretty clear as to what the story goal is. “A” is trying to find the killer. “B” is trying to get away with murder. “C” thinks he knows whodunit and wants lots and lots of money to keep quiet. “D” just wanted to have a nice dinner and is very upset that “E”, the victim, died at the biggest event of the season–not that she liked him very much anyway. If you put everyone in one room, there will be a heck of a show. Other cast members are there too. Some stand back. Some try to stop the arguments. Some just want to get out of there.

Since we are looking for conflict and tension I think we’ll have that. In fact, I strongly suspect that “D” might kill “B” for ruining her party.

Using baggage, and slightly off balanced characters can add flavor to your plot. So don’t let your main characters get any psychological help until after the writing is done. Slowly becoming “normal” can be part of your character’s arc.

What are some of your favorite characters? Do any of them need therapy or do you love them as is? 🙂

Back Story: Past Events Build Character

This first time wrote a story, the feedback I received asked what was my character’s motivation. At the time I didn’t understand what they meant and rewrote the whole thing thinking I wasn’t clear as to why my main character went from one scene to the next. But they weren’t commenting on a plotting issue.

Have you ever been haunted by the past? Has it made you do something wild or crazy that makes no sense to an outsider looking in? Someone that knows you and has seen your heart or your past is able to truly understand where you come from and what drives you forward.

I want all readers to be my main character’s oldest and dearest friends. I want them to understand why she stopped the man she really, really likes from kissing her goodnight. Or why an enemy stepped in to the rescue someone he hates.

I’m not a psychologist. I can only use my experiences to figure out why someone else would, or would not act. What stops me flat? Memories of moments that infuriated me, embarrassed me, touched me. Sometimes instinct takes over, the feeling so raw I’m lost in the moment with the consequence’s white light searing into me.

To make my players come alive, to make it clear as to why a character takes action I use backstory. By slipping in a line or two, I can confide a secret, a scar, a confession or deep desire from the past.

I’m careful on the approach and do not include any backstory until after the inciting incident. Then I ask myself how much of a bump in the forward motion the story can endure. History should enhance the reader experience, not bog them down. Think of pacing, and I try to keep the rhythm steady.

Although I know every detail, that doesn’t mean I have to share all of it. In this case think of a fan dancer. Everyone knows the fan dancer is naked, but how much she chooses to show is completely up to her. The audience hopes for more, but she only gives them quick glimpse when it suits her.

Taking it a step further think of the story as the two feather fans, and the glimpses are the backstory. The whole dance may keep the audience attention, but its curiosity keeps them focused on the whole. We all know what’s behind the fans. Backstory, human history and like most us it contains love, heartache, embarrassment, growth, and rage. No long explanation is needed.

And if one is required, or the reader needs more emotion and detail insert a flashback. Make sure you think this through though. If backstory adds a bump to the flow, a flashback stops it dead. Some deciding factors are: does it deepen the reader’s understanding and emotional investment, and can using this device avoid using a prologue? If so, here are some suggestions: never insert one before the inciting incident, frame the flashback or be sure there is a clear beginning and transition back into the original storyline, place it strategically to feed the building tension, and use as few as possible.

Backstory and flashbacks are two vehicles that allow a writer to begin in medias res and still tell a complete story. They can explain the character motivation and give the reader a glimpse as to why one player chooses a red outfit instead of a grey one, a terrier instead of a massif, a hotdog instead of a steak and to run away or stand and fight.

Gathering baggage builds our character.

What kind of baggage is your character dragging around? Why can’t they let go? Are there any hidden issues that belong to you?