Monday, March 19, 2012

Backstory..the thickening agent for some plots.

Most of us who are writers, whether aspiring or accomplished, have read countless books in our favorite genre, and we've no doubt picked and chosen the parts of each book that we loved and incorporated it into our writing, whether conscious or not.

One of the things we all try to do when writing fiction is to make our characters well rounded.. we don't want our Main Character, (MC), to drag around some cardboard cutouts that he talks to on occasion.. we want people who stand up on their own, not only do they walk and talk, but they yell, argue, spit, drink, swear, and fight on occasion I'm sure.

So how do we accomplish this feat of creating believable make believe people? One way is through backstory.

Say you have an old man who's grumpy and crotchety. He's always yelling at the kids to get off his lawn.  Pretty cliche, right?  You can almost see the prototypical old man sitting on a chair, or maybe a porch swing, in front of an old house that's badly in need of repair and a new paint job.  You can see his manicured lawn, in contrast to the house, it's well cared for.. yet also a little neglected in spots.  Maybe the grass is burnt in a couple of places.. the path up to his door has cement that's cracked, and there's some spots where some grass is grown through the cracks.  Maybe his mailbox leans a little and has some cobwebs on it because he doesn't get any mail, not even junk mail.

Put this guy in your story and he's.. meh.. slightly interesting, but not original by any means.  He's crazy old man Jenkins from down the street who has inhabited hundreds of stories similar to yours.

BUT.. now throw in some backstory on old man Jenkins.

What if I told you that Old Man Jenkins sits on his porch every day because he's scared of what might happen if one of the neighbor kids gets too close to his lawn.  Say there's a sinkhole in his lawn that nobody can see, but it's there..right behind the spot half way up his lawn where the grass is dead.  Maybe the sinkhole is in the same spot where Old Man Jenkins buried the door-to-door kitchen cutlery salesman that he thought was having an affair with the dearly deprated Mrs. Jenkins, (God rest her soul).  Maybe every night Old Man Jenkins gets woken up by a knock at the door, and when he goes to see who it is he can hear someone with rattley breath and a raspy voice asking if he'd like to see a demonstration of the latest ginsu knives. Maybe Old Man Jenkins is afraid that if one of the kids disappears down the sinkhole there will be an investigation and they'll find the body of a certain salesman, so he keeps a daily vigil.

-or-

What if we spin it a different way and say that Old Man Jenkins has always been a vegan, even before being a vegan was cool.. and he has a knack for experimental biology and cross-pollination.. and he is dedicated to creating an edible grass that can be grown in arid locations but that will provide the same nutritional benefit as a steak dinner.. it's so revolutionary that Countries in Africa can feed an entire city with no more space required than the size of a soccer field, something that already exists in Africa in abundance.  HOWEVER, his "meat-grass" has been found out by the FDA and the Cattlemen's Beef Association, and they'll stop at nothing to keep him from successfully harvesting his grass, even sending in spies who look like children to stamp out his crop.  So here is Old Man Jenkins, with the dietary health of the world on his shoulders, trying to stop an army of evil super spy-kids from stomping out the discovery of the century.

Pretty big spread in character's, no? Old Man Jenkins is just a side character in your story.. but suddenly he might be a hero to thousands, or a hidden killer.. suddenly this cliche' bit character has a life, a motivation, and is interesting. How does this new deeper character change your MC's interactions? Maybe not at all.. maybe quite a bit. Maybe he grows from bystander to confidant..or secondary villain.

In fact... I'm kind of interested in learning more about both of these guys actually.

hmmm...



2 comments:

  1. Good post! I may go a bit overboard, but I had a waitress appear in one scene in chapter four serving drinks to the protagonist and his girlfriend. By the time her four lines of dialog were complete, I had her criminal background check in hand, knew who her neighbors were, what she had that belonged to the girlfriend and knew what her secret was. I'm on chapter 33 now and she hasn't reappeared since.

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  2. So, presumably it's never a waste of time to give incidental characters a good back story becasue you never know when you might use them again even if it's in another place and another time.

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