Monday, August 15, 2011

How to Work in a Well-Planned Character Back-Story

Ok, folks. Here we go with part 2.

Click here if you missed last week’s post, How to Create a Complete Profile for Your Character – And Why You Shouldn’t Use It.

Part 1 post was all about the creation of a character’s background, how to get to know them, to really get inside your character’s head. This is valuable information, and it’s a process that I go through every time I want to create another character. (If I want that character to be a good one, anyway.)

Here’s part 2 for how to skillfully work in that back-story once you’ve got it planned.

Weaving in Back-Story

The real question is, why would you want to do this? Why should you even worry about when or when not to properly work in back-story? Well, like any other aspect of writing, using your character’s background correctly is a skill that, when implemented correctly, can really make your writing shine.

However, know that using character background is not for everyone, nor is it for every story. It’s a great skill to have, yes, and sometimes you’ll need it, but too much back-story can be overwhelming and discouraging to the reader, whose attention you very much want to keep.

There are times when you absolutely must bring your character’s background into play, however, so how do you know how much to use?

When to Dive in Deep

You’ll want to go into detail about your character’s background when you’re showing a very crucial aspect of their past. Your reader needs to understand very well this portion of your character’s back-story for them to be able to fully comprehend the significance of what’s going on now. Showing is almost always better than telling, and here that’s especially true.

When I want my audience to feel empathy for what my character’s been through, I show them what’s happened. Telling just doesn’t have the same effect. It will take time to go in depth to your character’s past, but at the right moment, this can have an enormous effect.

How to Do it

Here are a few things you can do when you want to show your character’s past in depth:

· Flashbacks: Here’s a great one for going deep into back-story. Put a space in your writing, a page break, so that the reader can clue in on what’s happening. I like to italics flashbacks, to give them a dream like quality and help the reader understand what’s happening. Allowing your character to think back about a detailed time in their life, and showing the reader the exact moment, that can be a terrific tool when you want to delve deep into your character’s history.

· Use Your Entrance: At the beginning of your story or chapter, enter with a scene from character history. This will give the reader necessary background to keep in mind, and it will give it to them with the detail needed. Then work in the note that there has been a flash forward.

Staying on the Surface

This technique is better to use when the moment in history you want your reader to know about isn’t as important or interesting, not enough, anyway, to show them outright. You’ll want to use this for moments that the reader needs to be aware of, but that don’t really evoke emotion or move the plot forward.

How to Do it

Here are some ideas for when you need to get the information to your reader but are unsure how:

· Dialogue: This one’s very helpful, for you still get that showing type of feel, rather than right out telling. You can have two characters talk to each other about an experience they shared, or have one character tell another about something that happened to them. This one can also be great if you want to leave the reader hanging or in the dark for a while longer. Two characters who know a key clue and talk about it can be great foreshadowing.

· Thoughts: A great thing you can do is to work through your character’s head, having them think about the event. It can be a brief mention of it, just as your character thinks about it.

· Omniscience: Use your power! This is where you, as the author, get to delve into background and tell the reader outright what they need to know. Be tactful about where to place this, though. Usually at the chapter beginnings would be the best spot, since there you won’t be interrupting any character’s point of view.

Quickie Example

Here is a brief example of what expertly woven in back-story can do for your writing. (Also, hopefully it will help you get a feel for when you should go in-depth and when you should skim.)

You’re writing a novel, and you’re trying to decide between these two choices:

· Option 1: You open your story with a brief background, letting the reader know that Bob’s parents died in the war years ago, the war that’s still raging now. Later in the plot, Bob and Joe have a confrontation in which Joe finds out that this is the reason Bob never wanted to fight all these years, even though Joe so desperately does.

· Option 2: You keep the fact that enemy soldiers killed Bob’s parents hidden as you introduce your characters and your story. Bob and Joe argue, and Joe wonders why Bob is so against joining the war, when Joe so badly yearns to fight for his country. Bob reveals to Joe in a confrontation how his parents died and that he doesn’t want to fight in this war because of that.

Starting to get the difference? There is absolutely nothing wrong with option 1… in other circumstances. Since the fact that Bob’s parents died is a pretty big deal, you’ll want to choose the moment in which you reveal that and depth that you go into with care.

This example actually comes from a short story I wrote, for those who are interested, except the characters’ names were Heem (Bob) and Shalayn (Joe…but a girl).

It’s all about timing and depth. When both of those are studied and implemented correctly, background story can be a huge boost in your writing and in your novel. Know how to work it in, and you can leave your reader breathless.

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