Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Character Backgrounds

Wow, an actual real post during NaNo, can you believe it?

So, my NaNo novel jumps around through a few different time periods.

1) The present (where Jackson is dead in the trunk of Triss' car)
2) The party (before the stabbing) 6 months earlier where Triss and Jackson bet on Fay and Spence hooking up
3) The night Jackson died (Thursday night, the story begins two days later on a Saturday and will end Sunday night)

Sure there's the dead body in the trunk... but since I'm more into character arcs than plot arcs, I'm much more interested in figuring out all the complicated relationships between the characters. The 'why' rather than the 'how' of the death.

In fact, the third timeline (the night Jackson died) is something I'm going to have to go back and insert after I finish writing the story, 'cause at this point, I still have no idea what happened.

So, with the narrator already hopping between three timelines, what about character backgrounds beyond that?

Well, I made a firm decision.

I don't care about the specifics of their backgrounds.

Does that sound, like, completely against all writing rules about knowing your characters inside and out even if the backstory doesn't make it onto the page?

Okay, I have a sense of their backgrounds... the MC's more than Triss' ('cause I am following this strange journey through the even stranger mind of the MC), and there are lots of details littered in and around the scenes, and the reader should be able to pick up other hints through subtext/etc, but I honestly can't tell you why the MC is homeless or what other major events in his/her lift put him/her there. I don't know the major points in Triss' life either, and since Triss and the MC don't talk about deep things, I doubt very much it's ever going to come out in the course of the story, but there are also enough details that the reader will wonder.

With these two characters, the relationship between them is so intense, that their separate pasts and their theoretically separate futures just don't matter to them. They care about surviving the present moment, and despite the fact that they are trying to dump a dead body, because they have each other to lean on, things are just a little bit easier that it otherwise might have been. This is the core nature of their relationship.

So, if that is the case for the characters, then their pasts shouldn't really matter to me or to the reader.

What do you guys think... do you agree? Disagree?

Off the top of my head, I can already think of one, full-length novel where you get almost no sense of past or future for any of the motley collection of *broken* characters, and it is one of my absolutely favourite books (as disturbing as it is).

What are your thoughts on importance of past events, as a reader or as a writer? As a reader, do you get annoyed/frustrated if there aren't clear reasons given as to why a character is so messed up? As a writer, how important do you feel the non-novel-timeline is? Do you usually try to suggest a firm past/future for your characters?


To be honest, I really hate stories where a character behaves horribly and their sad childhood keeps getting brought up to somehow validate their bad behaviour. Alcoholic parents, rape, abuse, etc, sure those are horrible things that change and shape people's lives, but I think it's lazy to use one specific incident/factor like that to *explain* away a character's in-novel behaviour, and it always irritates me as a reader. We are shaped by more than a few bad experiences, so shouldn't our characters be the same?


  1. I guess depends how long a story this will be if no background on characters - but this is so character driven that some back story I feel is required. Otherwise too many questions raised for reader. You’re correct the story is how they have each other to lean on - but is that enough?

    Due to my background perhaps, the backstory is the story for my characters. My main characters have pretty intense histories and that dictates how they behave. My side characters not so much and not as important. One reason perhaps that I can’t finish one of my series that I started is because I don’t know the character very well.

    Hope that answers your question.

  2. no past events unless they directly correlate with the present.

  3. I think it comes down to the character being consistent, as the reader has come to understand them: if the character does something out of place and it's rooted in the past then the reader, unless they know/guess something of that, is going to be seriously confused.

    I personally tend to try to know a lot about my characters, but it's more by developing their family and the people who shaped them even though said characters never show up in the novel. To me, that's what makes the character consistent as a person rather than specific Bad/Good Events.

    (Mind you, I'm doing urban fantasy and some of my plotting and character development is a direct response TO the genre where the MCs seem to have no life before the present beyond maybe a friend or two (plot related, of course) and one of two Events.)

  4. @ sue

    you are very right. most likely the next snippet I post will be one of those background things I don't have an answer to yet... so, you can read and let me know if you'd 100% need a full answer on it.

    If you remember that first flash fiction piece I wrote, I mentioned that it wasn't *a story* in itself, but the implication of a story. And that's what I do with character backgrounds as well... enough details that it implies a story, yet 90% of it is left up to the reader's imagination.

    @ prerna

    Hahahah, yup :) Which is why I can't ever seem to get into *generational* type books. Too. Much. History/background.

    @ alcar

    Yes, consistency is the key. You would be one of the few who know my writing best and could probably answer definitively whether my *implication* of a back-story works or doesn't work within the stories I write. well... then again, I guess you only read first drafts ;) ... I *fixed* Kamyar, by the way ;)

  5. I very rarely know much about my characters past when I begin writing. (I know, I'm breaking the 'rules'), I tend to find that if I need to know why something happened the story will tell me.

  6. @ Sarah

    Yes, that's a good way of putting it. The story reveals the details it needs to keep moving.


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