Make your characters leap off the page

April 30, 2012

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!


September 22, 2010

I’m reading advanced submissions in preparation for this weekend’s Southern California Writer’s Conference in lovely Newport Beach, and I’m seeing a consistent problem – backstory. The problem is so pervasive and oppressive, it feels like a virus.

I’ve written about Backstory here and here. But there is one point I cannot drive home enough:

You are not writing a story about the backstory of our story. You are writing about what happens BECAUSE of the backstory.

Please. Tattoo this to your forehead and put a note on your ‘puter monitor. Agents and editors will thank you.

Backstory isn’t always evil

February 24, 2010

What? sez you? You read my blog post on backstory and believe backstory and fluff is the root of all evil. Whazzis? You didn’t read that post? Well go on, read it and come back. I’ll wait…Hey, beagle, did you hear the one about the shark who became an agent? Well, word on the street is that she caught her tooth on an author’s shoe and…oh, you’re back. Cool. Let’s continue. We were talking about evil backstory.

I gave a seminar recently on Backstory Boogaloo, and I made a comment about knowing when and where to add backstory and fluff to a chapter. Someone rose their hand and called me on it. “Adding backstory and fluff? I thought we were supposed to remove it!”

No, no, no, no! Like my lust for Twinkies, moderation is the key to all things – including backstory and fluff. These are the elements that enhance a chapter with color and dimension.

Here’s an example:

With backstory and fluff

Overworked and Underpaid Editor checked the time and rubbed her eyes. No wonder her neck ached. It was 2 a.m. and she was no closer to finishing reading her goodie pile [some call it slush] than when she’d started earlier that day. She couldn’t have gotten as far as she had without help from the beagle. Uncharacteristically, she’d jumped right in and offered help in the way of fresh margaritas and reading.

Overworked and Underpaid looked over at the sleeping hound, snoring on the top of the pile of manuscripts, and felt a pang of love sweep across her heart. She’d always wanted a beagle, but somehow always ended up with dogs named Swamp Thing whose hair didn’t grow in a single direction. The beagle had been a surprise – not entirely welcome since she was used to being the Alpha female. So was Overworked and Underpaid.

The two had circled around one another for weeks, wondering if the relationship would take hold. The dam broke when Overworked and Underpaid came down to the kitchen for a glass of water and discovered the beagle mixing up a batch of margaritas. The best Overworked and Underpaid ever had. The two sat up until dawn, talking about life, gossiping about the Rottweiler up the street, and the finer nuances of designer chewie toys.

So while the two would always have a love/snarl working relationship, Overworked and Underpaid understood that when things got really tough, she could count on the beagle. She pulled out a blanket and covered the snoring hound and turned out the lights.

Take notice of the sentences in red, those are the lead in and lead out sentences. These puppies serve as a seamless transition into and out of your backstory. If it makes sense to add backstory [which is short and sweet], then the reader will follow you just about anywhere. But where you lead in, you need to lead back out to the current scene. This makes the backstory seamless and logical to your scene.

Here’s the same scene without backstory:

Overworked and Underpaid Editor checked the time and rubbed her eyes. No wonder her neck ached. It was 2 a.m. and she was no closer to finishing reading her goodie pile [some call it slush] than when she’d started earlier that day. She couldn’t have gotten as far as she had without help from the beagle. Uncharacteristically, she’d jumped right in and offered help in the way of fresh margaritas and reading. She pulled out a blanket and covered the snoring hound and turned out the lights.

Bada bing, bada boom. Sure, first thing you notice is how backstory and fluff adds to the word count. But it also adds to the richness and flavor of the scene or chapter. That’s why it’s wise to remember that too much of a good thing is bad for our literary waistlines. Use backstory and fluff judiciously and minimally. Make a conscious decision as to where and what you’re going to add.

Last thing you want is to have your readers get impatient and mutter, “get on with the story, already!”

Backstory is not for amateurs

May 31, 2009

Hooya, that’s a week of my life I’ll never get back. Not sure I want to, either.  I think the Cosmic Muffin decided he didn’t need the trouble, and the Devil decided he didn’t need the competition. Despite my best efforts, I’m going to live. The beagle assured me she had the office covered while I lay in bed praying for a quick death, but I had my doubts after rolling over in bed numerous times and coming face to face with her muzzle. On. My. Pillow.


As a result, there are mounds of email and phone calls that went unanswered. I apologize for the delay. I know there are several can’t-wait-hurry-ups in the stack, and I promise I will get to you – after I’m done reprimanding the beagle for sleeping on the job. Her punishment is eating mass produced dog food.

I think the reason I got sick was because my defenses were down from the car accident. Those things really do a head job on you. I’m not one to hang out with the Kleenex crowd, and I wasn’t a sobby whiny-butt mess or anything. But I wasn’t quite me either. The body aches were just a part of it. It’s the mind aches that sap your energy and natural defenses. The lower you are mentally, I believe the more susceptible you are to other crud. I think it just opened me up to those lovely flu germs my daughter so lovingly brought home last week. I’m planning her disappearance as I type.

So in spite of being delayed by a few weeks, I’ll be back to my fighting strength very soon and all my mail and phone calls will be answered.

Ok, so what does this have to do with the title of this post, which is Backstory? Cagey broad that I am, I wanted to show a sample of effective backstory.

Much of what I read in submissions is backstory, and I’ve discovered there are actually two types of backstory; the useless bits of fluff that has zippo to do with the story at hand but is meant to add flavor; and the backstory that took place BEFORE the real story began. Either way, I’m hard on backstory because its presence (or the lack of it) takes a story from five hundred miles an hour to flying off the train tracks into oblivion.

I see your eyebrows reaching the northern confines of your face. “Lack of it?” Yup. As much as backstory can kill a story, backstory, if used in the fingers of professionals, is good. And necessary.

I think Carolyn Jewel nails a couple of points squarely on the head in her guest post about backstory on Kristin Nelson’s blog. She has some real gems:

Backstory: Can’t write with it, can’t write without it.
It’s that and a bag of potato chips. Your characters don’t just materialize straight off the page to create a story. Just because they’re figments of our fertile imaginations doesn’t mean they don’t have a past. And they should. Just as in real life; people who have had rich experiences are often the most interesting people. So it goes to reason with your characters. They have baggage and issues just like we do.

And this is where the tread often fails to meet the road. Writers want us to know their character’s entire backstory. It’s not needed, and it’s a big manuscript killer. Sure, it’s necessary for you to write the backstory because you may discover something really cool or complicated about your character that adds huge dimension to your story – but that entire background won’t make it into the final cut. But a tidbit of it will.

In the example I used at the beginning of this post, which is what I refer to as fluffy backstory, the main thrust is about why I’ve been AWOL for so long. The bit about why I think I got sick in the first place is backstory. It wasn’t necessary, but I added it to show the chain of events that I believed led to my being a dithering loser for a week. It rounds out the story a bit and gives it depth. Now if I had continued down that backstory line and blathered on about how it took me a week before I was brave enough to get behind the wheel of my car, then it’s no longer germane to the topic at hand, and the reader loses interest. Who cares?

Let fluffy backstory out in dribs and drabs; like a balloon that you slowly let the air escape while pinching the neck so you can make that squeaky noise that annoys the hell out of everyone. If you let all the air out at once, your story is all backstory and no meat. The reader loses interest. Reject. Tattoo this on your forehead: It has to be germane to the story in order to hold our interest.

There is another kind of backstory that is comprised of major meat and potatoes. Many of my rejections occur here with the comment, “I feel like you’re trying to tell two stories at once. Choose one and tell it.” What this means is that the author crashed the backstory into the current story and it’s hard to tell who survived. You need to call out a literary tow truck and clean up this mess. And this leads to Carolyn’s second gem:

The problem is that we are not writing a story about the backstory of our novel. We’re writing about what happens BECAUSE of the backstory.
That sentence is so freaking brilliant it makes me want to whack myself for not thinking of it first. Some stories are constructed such that the author wouldn’t have their current story were it not for the events that took place in the backstory. It’s always pivotal.

For example, in my novel, my protag Erik Behler’s young patient died a needless and painful death because his parents believed in using only alternative healing methods. Erik was devastated with the death and became a material witness against the parents in a very public court case  for child endangerment, which they lost and went to jail. From that moment on, he believed anyone who practiced alternative medicine was akin to playing Russian Roulette with a bullet in every chamber. Enter Kim Donovan, the new surgeon on the block who lights up his life. And utilizes alternative healing methods in her practice. Now he’s on a collision course with his professional beliefs and his heart. How can anyone be so insane and lacking in good judgment (let alone a freaking doctor) be the one to open his eyes to a whole new side of life? He’s repelled, yet in love. The two emotions can’t exist in his well-ordered, scientific world, and one of them has to go. Kim and Erik’s story is about what they do because of the backstory.

When do I let the air out of my balloon?
The good author knows how to tell the current story without letting the backstory have too big a voice in that collision. And this moves to when to let that air out of your balloon. Since you have finite amount of air, you want to let out the right amount of air at the right moment. You have to decide what part of the backstory your reader needs to know at any given moment so they understand what’s taking place in the current story.

For my book, I added a short prologue because I wanted to shock the reader with the pain Erik carries with him at all times. But I let small bitsies leak out at various points of the story to give the reader what I felt they needed in order to fully understand the opposite poles that are constantly tugging at Erik. In one scene, Kim has a very persuasive argument with Erik, and I quickly brought in Erik’s dying patient who, while struggling to breathe, looks up at Erik through sad eyes and says, “It didn’t have to be this way, did it?” That backstory had far more emotional impact to that scene than any amount of cerebral verbs and nouns that could have shot out of my fingers.

Avoid the Prologue copout
I’m not always a fan of prologues [yes, I know I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth] because it’s so easy to make them info dumps. They’re invariably boring, and that’s why many readers skip them (even though I think that’s really stupid). When properly used, I also think they’re very powerful tools.

I agree that my prologue was a dicey decision, but I tried taking it out first [which is what every author should do], and it didn’t have near the emotional impact I wanted for the story. The reader HAD to have that information first because it’s Erik’s foundation of who he is. He’s the walking wounded, but he doesn’t realize it until he meets Kim, and she forces him to confront an old wound and consider his biases.

Always remember that your story isn’t your backstory. If it is, go back and write that one first. If it isn’t, let it seep out slowly from your literary balloon, and you’ll find that you have a well-rounded story that’s filled with great dimension and depth.

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