One of the things I look for in a book – be fiction or nonfiction – are characters that leap off the page. It’s an element of writing that can’t be overlooked. After all, if your characters are dull, one-dimensional- lifeless things, then it’ll be harder to become engaged in the plot. It’s also one of the big reasons I reject a book. I’ve talked a lot about character development over the years, so I thought I’d toss in a few more key elements to the mix.
If you’re worried that your characters aren’t all they could be, maybe they’re missing these:
Backstory – Stuff That Happened Off Camera
I’ve talked about Backstory a few times and how this little lovely can bog down a story with the same effect as the beagle after too many pitchers of margaritas. The same can be said for characters. However, used with care, backstory can give your character a delicious level of page leapage (totally made that up).
Your characters (real or imagined) didn’t just pop into your story. They are there for a reason, and that’s because something happened off camera that brought them to this point – a trigger point. What is it? Let’s take two examples – one fiction, one nonfiction.
I’m noodling around with a story where the protagonist opens a romance publishing company whose authors are five saucy ladies in their 70s and one very reluctant John Grisham-type character who’s working through his issues of writing on auto-pilot after twenty-something bestsellers.
The backstory is that Twist, the protag, was a talented and successful advertising wiz who discovers her partner is stealing her ideas and selling them to the highest bidder. She makes a splashy Custer’s Last Stand by flipping him the bird and exposing him at a woo-hoo advertising banquet in his honor, after which she sells her portion of the business for a hefty profit, sells her apartment in NY, and beats feet for a permanent hiatus from the rat race to Palm Springs, where she plans on writing a book. That’s the trigger point.
Sure, I could just leap in with the current story, but those colorful events that took place off camera add richness and dimension to the main character. Giving some backstory as to what brought my character this point helps the reader understand the decisions she makes and the kind of personality she has. Absent the backstory, the reader would have to just take my word for it. With the backstory, the reader understands and appreciates the decisions – and the trouble – the protagonist makes for herself and her authors.
What are the trigger points to your novel?
Chris Baughman wrote an amazing book, Off the Street, which focuses on a horrific human trafficking case he spearheaded and solved through his unique detective techniques. It would be an understatement to suggest Chris is passionate about saving women, and it would leave readers wondering what fuels that hard-charging drive, had he not gone into some backstory about his own youth.
Chris’ backstory reveals being a kid, living in the projects and having an innocent view of his surroundings where magic was around every corner. It was shattered one day while playing at his friend’s house when a man broke down the door and beat up the friend’s mother, taking all her money and tossing her out into the street – all because she tried to get out of the prostitution world. The man, who was her pimp, had other ideas.
The shock of the incident and helping his friend wipe the blood off his mother’s face and body, tore the blinders from his face, and he never again saw his neighborhood as the magical, ideal home. He saw the ugliness and brutality where women were beaten and killed, and it fueled the man he grew into. It is a hugely powerful backstory that communicates the passion Chris carries in his heart every day. Because you know what happened to Chris’ off camera, his trigger point, you understand what fuels him, and you cheer him on to break the animal that you see “on camera.”
Used with intent and care, Backstory rounds out a character.
How well do you know your character?
I find that many writers don’t know their characters all that well. They don’t know their backstories because they don’t go back far enough to really get to know them as real life people, their trigger points that brought them to the current story. Instead, writers get centered on a plot and stick in the characters in order to project the plot. Characters – real of fictional – aren’t chess pieces that you blithely pick up and move around. There has to be a logical reason for your characters to act the way they do. And that comes from knowing them as well as you know your best friend.
For example, I came up with the publisher story because I needed an example of plot for a seminar I was doing at a writer’s conference, so the idea of knowing my characters wasn’t part of the plan. People kept asking me if it was a real book and where could they buy it. Hah. So it got me to thinking maybe there was something more to this silly plot. First thing I needed to do is get to know my key players better.
- Who are they?
- What brought them to this point where the story begins?
- What kind of personalities do they have?
- What are their pluses and flaws (no one likes a Barbie or Ken)?
What to use, what to lose
The worry is often, “How far back do I need to go?” My answer would be, as far as you need to in order to fully understand your character as well as you understand your best friend. There is no magic bullet.
After I fully understand and know my protagonist, I have to analyze what parts of the backstory to use and what to lose. There will be elements of my character’s backstory that aren’t relevant to the story, but they’re just as important to me on a writerly level because the more I understand her, the more rounded I can write her.
It’s exactly like research. When I wrote my novel, Donovan’s Paradigm, I researched various aspects of the medical community (and medicine, in general) for nearly a year. I interviewed women surgeons in order to get a feel for their challenges, and I interviewed a chief of surgery in order to understand the decision-making process and how much power that position wields. In the end, I used a fraction of all the compiled research. A fraction. But I had a lot of doc readers ask what kind of medicine I practice. That’s research.
The more I knew, the more I knew what I could leave out. It’s the same with your characters. It may not be important that your character has a weakness for Twinkies, but you can use that little bit to round out a scene and add a measure of banter. If you didn’t know your character well enough, you will have missed that opportunity. Sure, it’s a small thing, but it’s also something the reader will remember. When Donovan’s Paradigm came out, I received a few boxes of Twinkies in the mail, which totally cracked me up.
And that’s what you want to do: leave an impression.
Fully researching your character will leave readers with a lasting impression.
I love dialog (inner dialog included) because it’s the only way the reader can see the character clearly. You can narrate ’til the cows come home, but unless you hear them speak, they remain one-dimensional. It’s all about communication, and it’s gotta be real. Too often, I see the exact opposite.
Dialog is the writer’s opportunity to reveal the soul and guts of their characters, and so many don’t take advantage of this. I hear all the time, “I suck at writing dialog,” and I don’t understand this. Ostensibly, we all interact with people, so what’s not to get? Even I escape my batcave to walk among the living, and I’m forced to actually speak.
If you speak, then how is it so hard to do this for your characters? And yet, I see this all the time. If your dialog is mundane and wooden, your characters won’t be memorable.
What makes you sit up and take interest:
“I’m going to the beach.”
“I’m going to hit the beach and french fry my skin into something the Golden Arches would envy.”
“I’m so sad.”
“Every crevice of my soul aches.”
Dialog is a valuable tool to expose your character’s soul.
So if you’re having trouble making your characters leap off the page, maybe you will find help with getting to know your characters, creating a backstory, and working on their dialog. Now go out and be brilliant!