About back story: My characters tend to have a lot of it, and I understand that this is a good thing. But I also have trouble /pacing/ it throughout the story so that the reader doesn’t get overwhelmed. And it just feels like I’m doing this: IjustlovemycharactersomuchandIwanttotellyoueverythingaboutthemrightawaysothatyoulovethemtooooooooooo. And yeah, that’s annoying and the reader will probably get a headache. So, do you have any tips for pacing character back story?
When it comes to revealing backstories, I really think that less is more, and I’ll tell you why.
- Realism: Real people (and good characters) are complicated, multilayered, and have been living their own lives prior to when you met them. However, when you first meet someone, do they pour out their life story to you in a Scheherazade-like epic retelling? Not usually. Usually, you get to know them over time, and you learn new things when they come up in the time you spend together. In time, you may even know quite a lot about that person- but it takes time. Knowing about someone’s history, their childhood, and their current life is a mark of trust and a lot of time spent together. I can only claim to know a handful of people as well as you’d normally get to know the protagonist of a book.
In short- there’s a lot about characters and people that you don’t know. Trying to tell your audience ‘the whole story’ about someone will likely only cause you (and your reader) a headache. While they may learn a great deal about the character over the course of the narrative, they’ll learn it better in bits and pieces.
- Relevance to plot: While it’s good to throughly develop a character’s background for your own purposes, when you’re writing, ask yourself: Is this relevant to the story at hand, or would this be something that would be better placed in a prequel about that character (whether you intend to write one or not).
For example: If I’m telling you a story about how Pen and I got chased by a dog, it’s relevant that she’s scared of dogs after one treed her as a child, and would come up in the narrative naturally. It’s irrelevant that I had a bad experience with lemon popsicles as a child, and would feel out of place.
Additionally, your character will probably be developing and changing within the story- so the focus should be on how they’re becoming a different person than who they were in the times of their backstory. People evolve continually, so really, ‘backstory’ is kind of a broad term. Exceptions include purposefully static characters, characters who are caught in the past themselves, and the like.
- Finally, why it’s good to keep readers in the dark just a little bit: Now, I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase ‘show not tell’ approximately 10^23 times by now. But it applies here too! When possible, it really helps to try and demonstrate a character’s backstory, rather than tell it straight. Harking back to Pen and I’s hypothetical dog adventure- if she turns pale when we go by the dog park, the reader can infer that something happened in her past involving dogs. This in many ways is better than flat telling, because a block of telling backstory can be boring, but if you make it just enough of a puzzle, the reader will feel really clever for having figured out something about the character that wasn’t explicitly stated (and we want them to feel clever, it keeps them interesting). From there, you need to decide if the shown not told detail is a segue in to a written explanation, or a noodle incident. Segues are good if you need to do a lil bit of an infodump that’s relevant and important and all that to the plot. The trick is, keep the reader feeling clever. The ideal is that when you reveal that Pen has a crippling fear of dogs since she was five, the reader screams bloody murder about how they called it. When it comes to a noodle incident (a noodle incident being a past event that is frequently brought up, but not properly explained. ie, ‘Budapest’ in Avengers) the first rule is that is that you never explain the noodle incident. Instead,you let the readers draw their own conclusions or make their own theories, as they will almost invariably be disappointed with your answer. Decide which is better or more suited to your story.
some tips for you include:
- Reveal backstory in digestible lil bites
- Reveal those bites when they come up naturally
- Select which details are relevant to the story at hand, and which are irrelevant
- Try to ‘show not tell’ some parts of your character’s history
That’s it, hope it helps!
Is My Character Moral? (Rebloggable Version)
Admin Note: This post is a rebloggable copy of our page on character morality. The page is being phased out, so from now on all updates will be made on this post and not on the page.
Is your character moral? This is a very complicated question. First of all, what is “moral”?
Moral (n): focused on the fundamental principles of right conduct rather than on legalities, enactment, or custom.
Okay, so moral characters are concerned with right-mindedness; they care about doing the right thing. Right? Notice that, by the definition, morality supersedes legality and customs, which are constraints imposed on people by society. These constraints may be immoral like the military draft which forces people into a situation where they may have to kill another person (killing is pretty much immoral, folks) or the common custom of the “little white lie”. And because these constraints may be immoral, a moral character may, on occasion (or all the time), ignore them.
What are the principles of moral behavior? How can you tell, basically, if a character is moral?
“If you ask anyone, ‘What is morality based on?’ these are the two factors that always come out: One is Reciprocity, and associated with it is a sense of justice and a sense of fairness, and the other one is Empathy and compassion. Human morality is more than this, but if you would remove these two pillars, there would be not much remaining, I think, and so they are absolutely essential.” - Frans de Waal
What do Reciprocity and Empathy mean?
Reciprocity (n): responding to a positive action with another positive action, rewarding kind action
Empathy (n): the ability to understand and share the feelings of another
If your character is moral, he or she will almost certainly have a sense of fairness and compassion. Both of these are considered part of the Seven High Virtues, with Empathy commonly referred to as “Love” or “Charity”, and Reciprocity most often called “Justice”. Very moral characters will, most likely, have either Love, Charity, or Justice as their peak virtue.
Moral characters are often good listeners. They care for other people, and they want to do right by them. They are willing to take action to create positive outcomes for others. They have little to no concern for themselves.
Don’t get us wrong, morality is a sliding scale. Many heroic characters are basically moral, though they may sometimes kill, lie, steal, or cheat depending on what life-threatening or otherwise difficult situation has arisen. But if you’re looking for straight-up a moral character, the most common indicator will always be cooperation.
Does your character play well with others?
Morality arises from the need for cooperation, and the understanding of cooperation as essential to human interaction. There is no need to be moral if you are, for example, the last human on Earth. Who is there to be moral with or to? Therefore, moral characters desire to interact with others in a positive way. Immoral characters don’t care about offending or harming others, so they are cool with interacting in a negative way.
Moral heroic characters are often great leaders because they are good at cooperating. Immoral heroic characters are often loners because they are awful at cooperating.
Alright, so if your character moral, they will (most likely):
- Ignore legalities or customs that they view as immoral
- Have a strong sense of justice and compassion
- Cooperate well with other characters
It is worth noting that morality is different for different people in different places at different times in history. Generally, there are universal ideas of morality instilled within us from infancy (these are cooperation, justice, compassion, a sense of “rightness” and “wrongness”, etc). Deciding what you, as a writer, think of as “moral” is fundamental in determining the morality of the character in question. We can’t tell you what moral is for you in your story or for yourself, but once you decide that, you will be able to define your character’s morality.
If you are very interested in determining the morality of your character, you can take this quiz for yourself and/or for your character to help you decide. Be warned that some of the questions may not be truly applicable to your characters (for instance, whether or not stem cell research is wrong may not be an issue in your world because there is no stem cell research), but do your best to answer for your character in those situations.
For more on morality, check out our Videos about Morality post!
Character Points to Consider When Writing Dialogue
Following on from my post yesterday about naturalistic dialogue, I wanted to talk a little more in depth about it.
Remember that naturalistic speech for one character is very different to naturalistic speech for another character. Everyone has their own way of speaking, their individual quirks and nuances.
There are many things about your character which will affect the way in which they speak, and the words they use:
- Who they are talking to. Someone older or younger than them. Someone of higher or lower status. Someone they know well or a stranger.
- Their age
- Their level of education (whether through an establishment, home-schooled, or self-taught)
- Their accent, or blend of different accents
- Any speech impediment, social or mental disorder, facial injuries or disfigurement, or recovery from illness eg a stroke
- If they wear false teeth
- Their hearing ability
- Their general upbringing
- Their level of self-confidence
- The person they view themselves as
- The person they want people to think they are
- Whether or not they are speaking in their first language
- Morality and beliefs
Videos about Morality
In our post on character morality, we sought to answer basic questions about how to understand and convey a character’s morality. In the interest of thoroughness, here are some great video resources to learn more about morality.
- Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions
- Morality by QualiaSoup
- Frans de Waal: Morality Without Religion
- Frans de Waal: Moral behavior in animals
- Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins on Morality and Science
- Atheists On Religion, Science, And Morality (The Point)
- What is Morality? The Philosophical and Theological Foundations of Moral Debate 2-23-07
- Animaniacs - Wheel of Morality Compilation
- “What is Morality” by Professor Thomas Scanlon, 2013, College of Arts, University of Guelph
- Sharpton / Hitchens Debate - Can Morality Exist Without God?
- Modernity and Morality: A commentary by Fr. Barron
- ShorthandHero’s Morality Series
- BigThink: What is morality?
- BigThink: Richard Dawkins: Letting Science Inform Morality
- Introduction to Moral Philosophy Playlist by icuweb
- Nietzsche on Morality
- Kenji Yoshino: What is justice?
- Michael Walzer: What is justice?
- Re: What is justice?
- Justice with Michael Sandel
- Episode 01: “THE MORAL SIDE OF MURDER”
- Episode 02: “PUTTING A PRICE TAG ON LIFE”
- Episode 03: “FREE TO CHOOSE”
- Episode 04: “THIS LAND IS MY LAND”
- Episode 05: “HIRED GUNS”
- Episode 06: “MIND YOUR MOTIVE”
- Episode 07: “A LESSON IN LYING”
- Episode 08: “WHATS A FAIR START?”
- Episode 09: “ARGUING AFFIRMATIVE ACTION”
- Episode 10: “THE GOOD CITIZEN”
- Episode 11: “THE CLAIMS OF COMMUNITY”
- Episode 12: “DEBATING SAME-SEX MARRIAGE”
Characters and Plot
I feel like my characters are pretty developed by themselves. As stand-alone creations, they’re well-rounded and interesting and so on. But in my story, they… have no point. You could throw PacMan or Mel Gibson in their places and still have everything turn out the same. How do I get them to INTERACT with my plot, so to speak? How do I get them to actually have an effect on their world and their world to affect them? [And if this is the wrong blog, could you direct me to one that CAN helpme?]
- Have them make decisions and choices.
- Make their decisions matter.
In other words, base your plot more heavily off of what your characters would do. If they fuck things up and your story lands in a tricky place that you’re not quite sure how to get out of, all the better. So, the next time you’re writing, ask yourself constantly, ‘what would this person do in this situation?’ It should matter which character does what. Everyone should have a motive, and they should act in accordance with their motivations, desires, and fears.
Does that help?