Warrior Writer: Deadly Sins of Writing—Sin #5 The Bog of Back-Story

The Bog of Back-Story

The Bog of Back-Story

Creating great characters has to be one of the toughest tasks for any fiction writer to successfully accomplish. Let’s be honest. Plot is important, but characters have the power to make or break a story. Most of us don’t remember plot…we remember people. We identify. There is something about that character resonates within our soul, and we’re hooked.

Put it another way. Do you recall all the ins and outs of the Star Wars movies? Probably not. Most of us don’t. While we will always remember Darth Vader, we might have to pause and think about what nefarious deed Darth was up to in which movie. ***That scene with the cute fuzzy critters that looked like heavily-armed Shih Tzus was the third one. Right?

Currently I am rereading Lonesome Dove (read it back when I was a senior in high school).  I’ll confess that yesterday when I bought the book, I could not tell you anything about the plot other than I think it involved cattle. But, I DID remember Gus and Call even though it has been fifteen years since our paths last crossed.  I could list examples all day, but I believe I’ve made my point. Characters are vital. They are the life force of your story.

Today’s blog will help you give life to great characters. How? By teaching you not to kill them.

There are a number of ways to strangle, smother, or otherwise crush the life from what could have been a wonderful character. One popular method of involuntary homicide (character-cide?) is the ever-tempting Bog of Back-Story.  Like a real bog, the Bog of Back-Story looks lush, verdant, and innocent from afar. One might even easily mistake this smooth green landscape for solid ground…but take a closer look. This sucker is nothing but mud and muck and quicksand. Step in deep enough and you ain’t getting out.

I have edited hundreds of short stories and novels. I cannot count the number of times I’ve read a really clever story that had some great forward momentum…only for the author to stop and go back in time to explain why such-and-such did thus-and-such. What? Huh?

It is my opinion that the Bog of Backstory is most often the by-product of a writer’s failure to plan ahead of time. In “Who Dares Wins,” Bob Mayer teaches about the Area Study. Writers (especially new writers) often charge into a plot without ever understanding the psychological terrain of the characters. As a consequence, it is then easy for characters to wander off the path (plot) and end up stuck in the mire of memories and recollections.

Note of Caution: Writing the novel is not the time to get to know your characters and their motivations.

Possessing a good understanding of a character’s back-story is crucial to creating a character with depth. Note I said “a good understanding.” Back-story gives life to a character much like water gives life to a plant. However, filling a plot with back-story (like overwatering) will just kill forward momentum and drown your character.

So how do you avoid falling into the Bog of Back-Story? The same way you would avoid falling into a real bog. Do an Area Study. You wouldn’t consider charging off into the Florida Everglades without a map or guide or any basic understanding of the terrain. Why do it with your writing?

Here is some good news. Back-story that is crafted ahead of time, that is planned and purposeful, transcends into something altogether new—a character profile. And since character profiling happens to be a skill that takes time and practice to master, I highly recommend learning from those who do it well. Bob teaches some wonderful techniques for this in his “Novel Writers Toolkit.” And if you really want to take character profiling to a whole other level, I highly recommend Bob’s new Warrior Writer Workshops. Go to www.bobmayer.org for details.

So stay on solid ground. Until next time…

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  1. #1 by Jenni Holbrook on June 24, 2009 - 9:14 pm

    I have a love/hate relationship with backstory. I have to know it, understand it, develop it, deal with it, even write it, so long as it doesn’t end up in said book. If that makes sense. Always easy for me to pick it out of someone else’s story, but my own? Uh-huh, yeah, right.

    This is a timely post. I’m currently working on characters and developing them within the frame of my story. Truthfully, it hasn’t been going so well lately. I’m stuck. I’m working, digging, writing, doing whatever I can to flesh them out, I just haven’t hit the high note yet. Some tell me to just write the book, it will come to me. I have a hard time doing that. I want to know certain things so I don’t write myself into a corner or have characters that are too stupid to live. I am fairly confident I will get there, though I have to admit the dreaded “I suck” syndrome has returned. Well, on ward and forward, or whatever. Must get back to characters….

  2. #2 by Bob Mayer on June 24, 2009 - 9:23 pm

    Almost half our outline for AGNES AND THE HITMAN, with Jenny Crusie, was backstory. We had to figure out what had actually happened in a key event 25 years ago. Then, where our heads exploded, was we had to know what each character REMEMBERED happening. Remember, memory is shaped by perception. So each person had a different perception. Also, flashback and memory are two different things. Flashback is what happened, memory is what someone remembers happening and is warped by what they want now.

  3. #3 by The Hook on August 25, 2012 - 3:46 pm

    Its hard to stay on solid ground, but I’ll try…

  4. #4 by submeg on October 1, 2012 - 7:36 am

    Once I had started to think of the plot, I then shifted my focus to the characters that would populate the story. In creating the characters, I planned out their back stories to ensure that I “knew” the characters before they entered the story. How much of that story will be shared in the actual story? Not sure yet.

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