When we begin a new novel, we need to intimately know our characters. We must know their motivationsówhy they do certain things and what causes them to react to events with warmth or hostility. Otherwise, their strong reactions or nonchalance may seem strange to other people.
So, to prevent our readers from thinking our character is an escapee from the psycho ward, we create backstories for them, inventing histories, naming parents and siblings, all information we hope will bring that character to life on the page. Some writers go into such detail that they fill page after page of character history, even listing grades the character received in school.
While Iím a strong believer in plotting my story beforehand, Iím not one who needs to know what day of the week my character washes her hairó unless itís relevant to the story.
Thatís the key.
Our readers do not need to know every facet of a characterís lifeóunless that particular facet is an important storyline. Suppose, for example, I begin a new book and name my main character Lucy. And letís further suppose I create a northern Minnesota history for her, and after describing her, I want a character trait that other people would consider a bit Ďquirkyí but harmless. While Iím trying to decide what to give her, my husband flips the TV channel to the latest rerun of Arachnophobia, so I decide to give Lucy a strong fear of spiders. Sheíll scream and run at the sight of even a harmless garden spider that may have found its way into her apartment or dormitory.
What do I do with that information? I could use it as a comic relief and show this fear as a source of teasing from her friends, but if thatís the case, itís not very important and isnít relevant to the story. When youíre writing tight, it should not be included.
But what if I include WHY Lucyís fear is so strong. Remember, in fiction, we need to show motivations, not only in character conflicts, but we need to know WHY Lucy screams at the sight of a spider. We must remember to be like a child and always ask why, why, why? Why did George slug his brother on graduation night? Why does Lucy have this overwhelming fear of spiders? While most people do not particularly like spiders, most will not go into hysterics when spotting one. So why does Lucy scream and run?
Now we can invent something brilliant, such as a near-fatal black widow spider bite when she was seven. Venomous spiders are rare in Minnesota, but letís say her parents visited the Twin Cities and bought home a tropical houseplant from Florida, and one of the leafy branches hid this nice, fat, poisonous black spider. Lucy survived the bite, of course, otherwise there wouldnít be much to the story, but we could create this horrible experience at the hospital and how she was deathly ill.
That event, even though itís dramatic, is just thatóa dramatic event in her history. As with our friendsí and neighborsí background, we might find the event mildly interesting, but really, who cares? I shouldnít bore my readers with that bit of backstory unless it relates to the main plot .
If the plot is about Lucy meeting the love of her life while in graduate school and debating whether or not to marry him and move to another town in Minnesota, then the spider background is not an issue. Itís simply an event that happened in her life that is of no interest to anyone else and shouldnít be mentioned.
But suppose I want to use it in my story? Suppose I want Lucy to overcome her horror of spiders as part of her character growth? If so, Iíd need to invent a storyline where spiders could be an issue.
How about if the love of her life is a young man who thinks the curved tail of a scorpion is fascinating, loves to examine the long, hairy legs of a tarantula, and canít wait to compare the beautiful red markings of different black widows? Lucy adores him beyond everything, or most everythingósheís repelled by his career choice, which, of course, is Arachnology. He wants to study these creatures and write a book about them, so he plans to move from nice, safe Minnesota and live in the states where their species thrive.
Ah hah! Now we have a possible storyline with the character trait as a main source of conflict.
And to make matters worse, we turn up the heat and say heís just been offered his dream job as an assistant to the countryís foremost authority on spiders, but only on condition that he immediately accept the position and make the move within the next two weeks. He asks Lucy to marry him and accompany him to his new location.
Lucy now has a dilemma: her fear or her lover? She must make a fast decision, one that could affect her entire life. And readers, if Iíve written the story well enough, will turn the pages to see what she decides. Now Iíve taken a character trait and not only used it in my story, but Iíve used it as a major interest of conflict and built a story around it.
How about traits for your characters? Iím sure you can be more imaginative than the fear of spiders, so list several that are of interest to you. Then explore the conflicts each could trigger. If you can develop a trait and use it to build your story, itís relevant. The others you can disregard Ė until the next novel.
A multi-published writer and editor, Brenda Hill crafts stories about women in crisis.
Her second and favorite novel, Beyond the Quiet - about a woman who, after her husband dies, finally learns to live - hit Amazonís top 50 bestsellers, Kindle edition, July 2011. In Ten Times Guilty, a young mother searches for value after a brutal attack. RT Book Reviews favored the novel with a half point below the top rating. In With Full Malice, scheduled for release in 2012, her character finds strength after someone she loves is threatened.
Brenda holds certificates from several national writing courses and belonged to an international critiquing group. Check her website for tips on writing, editing, and grammar: http://www.brendahill.com
*Edited by Teresa Crumpton*