My husband bought a new piece of equipment, and thought he might just have the right cable for it. I’m not sure whether he does or not, but the collection itself helped me understand something about worldbuilding. When my husband commented on how we were looking at our own history, I realized I could use the stuff stuck in the corners of my characters’ homes to explain who they are and how they came to be that way. I’ve used small items that a character treasures for worldbuilding and character development, but I’ve never thought about the detritus of life. This is the stuff that only gets dragged out when you move, or redecorate, or are absolutely convinced that you still have that perfect whatsit hiding in a box somewhere. Very likely the items themselves will not have a role to play in the plot, but will be invaluable for backstory. Who knows, I might even start clearing out the corners of the house to find good examples to use.
Once again, my love of nonfiction is going to help me become a better science fiction writer. Neil Price admits that the Viking culture he teaches now is not precisely the culture he taught years ago. As he has explored more digs and re-evaluated the artifacts, he has come to different conclusions about them and the people who used them. Not only is this exciting to me – there is still more to learn! – it is a valuable tool when I create the worlds my characters inhabit. One single artifact could upend everything I’ve thought about my characters, opening up new plot lines (or possibly cleaning up old ones). I don’t have to create a detailed economic system for my alien worlds, but I can hint at it with the tools and market places I describe. My readers are likely to be interested in other government or religious systems only as they explain who my characters are. You can learn a lot about describing alien societies by reading how archaeologists and anthropologists describe human societies so far removed from our culture that they may as well have come from another planet.
My husband and I were watching My Man Godfrey(1936, Carole Lombard, William Powell), and debated whether Lombard’s character Irene was merely swimming through life, grabbing what she thought looked interesting at the moment, or whether she had a plan and was working toward her goal. It occurred to me that with so many people contributing to Irene’s story arc – the writers, the director, the actress – it might be hard to figure that out. Some scenes with Irene seem to have her represent the failure of American society to recognize value outside of profit, some have her achieving some level of enlightenment, and some scenes are just for the giggles. There is plenty of room for the audience to contemplate the meaning of life through Irene’s actions.
Regardless of what I am trying to achieve in my writing, my characters are unwilling to take direction without inserting their own ideas. Yes, I am aware that since I’m the one with the fingers on the keyboard those ideas are all coming from me, but it doesn’t always seem that way. So, to keep myself from wandering into the weeds of self-analysis, here’s my new(ish) to-do list for character development:
layer your concept of the meaning of life into all of your characters
give your character a place to grow to, and an alternative that would be a disaster
leave space for the reader to ponder the meaning of life
Okay, so this isn’t a new spin on character development after all. It is, however, a good reminder list for writers – and with all those characters in our heads screaming for attention, having a list is useful.
The week between Christmas and New Year is always one of leftovers. Leftover food, leftover projects, leftover ambitions – it all collects in corners around the room, taunting me. Yes, January 1 is just a day, bracketed by a yesterday and a tomorrow, but I always feel I should justify what I drag with me into the beginning of a new set of to-do lists.
Although my current novel-in-progress isn’t set in January, it does occur to me that I am missing a wonderful tool for character development by not considering what my imaginary friends take with them from one year to the next. Do they save their calendars? Do they update their resolutions lists? Do they clean the house, shop for new socks and underwear, or finish the book on their bedside table before they celebrate? And what do your characters do?
It’s the Solstice, so it must be time for the reindeer to return. Specifically, my reindeer collection. I thought about how it really isn’t Christmas without the reindeer and that I rarely get them out before the Solstice despite my best intentions. Then I thought of an article I read about design and navigating the holidays. The author suggested that since good design always has some tension, one should plan for tension during family gatherings. I guess the idea is if you’re the one throwing the monkey wrench into the works you can persuade yourself you’re in control. That got me thinking about character development. Most of my characters do their best to create calm, serene environments. Tension is fine for art, but not a family. What would happen if I let my protagonist deliberately start the tension? Would that make readers think I was being inconsistent, or would they see this as Susan’s (justified, one hopes) reaction to one more burden placed on her? How would Susan apologize for the crisis she started once it was over? Would she even try? I’m not sure if or how I will attempt to have Susan act in opposition to her usual style, but it’s an interesting question to ponder. It might even keep me from changing the traditional holiday recipes just to see what happens.
While I was trying to distract myself from eating the Halloween candy before the trick-or-treaters could get it, I was reminded about transformation in character development. The roots of Halloween are all about moving from one plane of existence to another, but we’ve sort of forgotten that with all the candy and costumes and fun. The same can be true of backstory and any other information your character has at the beginning of the story. As your character’s journey unfolds, she can forget or choose to ignore what she knows. Perhaps this will enable her to change, learn, and grow in wonderful ways, perhaps it will be her downfall. That part is only sorta kinda maybe up to you, but you can experiment and see what your character wants. Your character may discover that everything she thought was true about herself was at least partly a lie, and some of the rumors she had been told to dismiss were actually what really happened. The key thing to remember is that information is a tool, and how your character uses it can make for a ripping good yarn.
I finished a fascinating book called Code Warriors(about the people who cracked military codes during World War II and the creation of the agencies that would continue that work in the Cold War) just after Susanne Lakin spoke to Tri-Valley Writers regarding the protagonist’s journey and how to plot it. Code Warriors made me realize how easy it is to lie, which gave me another insight into the plotting scheme Lakin uses to move the story and characters to the desired end point. Most of my characters, whether in the books I write with Ann Anastasio or my own short stories, are basically well-adjusted. There aren’t going to be too many dark, hidden secrets because I have enough to fret about in my own life without weeping over my characters. Although Lakin showed us how to make subtle changes that will move the plot and let even happy characters evolve, I didn’t quite understand until I read about the Watergate scandal. I lived through that, so there should have been no surprises, right? Wrong. As I came across events I had forgotten, it occurred to me that my characters may “forget” some unpleasantness, which is enough of a lie to give them space to change. Their epiphanies don’t have to be earth-shattering to be satisfying. So, if my characters don’t have to change the world to be able to live a more authentic life, maybe yours don’t either.
I live in a part of the world where late spring and early summer is often fog-shrouded. We call it May Gray and June Gloom. Usually I mourn when the early spring sun disappears, but this time we had a significant heat wave before May Gray arrived. That was actually terrifying, because if it’s that hot in May, August will be unbearable. It will also mean a ferocious fire season. I’ve been overjoyed that mornings have been cool and misty, and send out positive thoughts to keep that fog bank thick and healthy. That got me thinking about how I could motivate my characters with changes in the weather, or how moving to a new climate could affect them. My dry-world characters could react to a lush, green place not with wonder but with pain – the bright green could hurt their eyes. Moving a character used to white winters to a place where summer is the monochromatic season might create an unexpected depression that she has to first recognize then address. Weather introduces uncertainty, or at the very least a time of transition, and that is an opportunity to give your characters a different motivation. Now if only I could use May Gray to motivate me to write my next chapter.
One thing the pandmeic has shown is that people can muddle through quite a lot and be fine at the end if they’ve been trained to be resilient. After a year of digging through my experience to solve the latest COVID-related problem, I finally realized I should consider how to show resilience in my characters. If you are writing a series, you can expect the reader to accept that your heroine will always find a way out of any clever plot twist, but how do you show that resilience in a stand-alone novel? No, seriously, I’m asking.
The standard answer is that you put it in the backstory and sprinkle that through the narrative. If you’ve been clever enough to establish that your character has some skills, such as botanist Mark Watney in The Martian, your reader will follow where you lead. If you begin your novel in the protagonist’s childhood, as Delia Owens does in Where The Crawdads Sing, you have established a foundation for her ability to do whatever she must. If you’ve done as I have, however – started writing and let the characters tell you what they want as you go along – then you need to put in something that will explain why Cecily is able to become an interstellar diplomat when she hasn’t got a credential to her name.
I have given her friends who can contribute their own skills. One of those friends is someone she has known for years, so they can reference a shared experience as they are exploring possible solutions to their dilemma. Since she was traveling in space, Cecily brought very little with her so I can’t drop in talismans or mementos that she might have accumulated at home. I’m tempted to have her find something on the planet (Rineta) that reminds her of another struggle in her past, even if it is just a budding plant. One can hope that eventually Cecily will tell me what sort of device would serve her – and the readers.
After years of reading advice to start the story in the middle, I may finally understand what that means. I’ve been keeping a journal since the county’s first shelter-in-place (SIP) order. Although the order was eased, we were advised to stay at home as much as possible. My first entry of 2021, the entry that usually gushes about the chance for a fresh start, also notes that we’ve been living with the pandemic for 287 days. “Self,” I said, “all of your characters and plots have backstory. This is what starting in the middle means.”
Since I am a hopeless pantser, I intend to keep writing the way I usually do. I generally hear a phrase, or think of a character, or some odd thing happens, and I tell myself there’s a story in that. After writing about half of the story, I realize what my characters want to be and what’s really happening. That realization often makes me sad, because I feel I should have figured those things out in the beginning. Now I have another tool, an insight into the mind of the reader. If I were a reader of the story and not the writer, what would I need to know at this very moment? This is where I will put in the backstory that has only then revealed itself to me. It’s not an efficient way to write, but if I were efficient I would be a plotter.
For those of you who are plotters, the effect is the same. Readers don’t want – or need – to know how the hero got to the small town where he now lives on page one. They need to know it at some time, but not at the beginning. Look through your own journals and notice when you reminded yourself of your own backstory, or listen to yourself explaining old family arguments to friends. This will help you identify when backstory is needed in your novel, and help you avoid the dreaded infodump.