Home is Where the Character Is

I’m about to confess something here that maybe I shouldn’t: I wrote an entire novel without giving any background information whatsoever about the protagonist.

It wasn’t that I didn’t care; I was simply more focused on crafting a mystery that hung together.  So I kept putting off developing her backstory…eventually I’d finished the whole draft and it still wasn’t in there. (At one point, a detective asks her where she’s originally from and she says, “the east coast.” I didn’t even name a specific state.) It didn’t seem necessary somehow: the action in the text had to do with here and now. She seemed fully realized enough as a character without it.

That’s fine, I told myself.  After all, I teach literature for a living, and there are plenty of texts that don’t tell you diddly jack squat about the main characters other than what they do in the story.  Shrug.

After I revised the manuscript, though, my novel was still too short to submit. So I signed up for a course with a local writing group focused on building strong character arcs.  I thought the class might trigger some ideas for development.

And the first thing we did was write about backstories. Insert gnashing of teeth here.

The teacher claimed that for an effective character arc, I needed to know where my protagonist was from and what she most wanted.

I already understood who she was as a person, and I didn’t want to talk about her childhood.  But what she wanted seemed obvious, given the genre: she wants to solve the mystery.

The teacher said: go further.

She wants to solve the mystery and still be alive at the end?

More.

She wants to solve the mystery, be alive at the end, and keep her job?

Deeper. What internal conflict has she never resolved?

Hmmmm.

I politely noted that many texts didn’t overtly give characters a backstory.  My patient teacher said, yes, but if you know your character’s whole life, you will write her better. Her motivations will become clearer.  Even if you never state anything about her home, as long as you’ve done the work, the effects will find their way into your manuscript by a sort of magical osmosis.

I decided to shut up and do the work. (Mostly to prove her wrong. I knew my character, thank you very much.  I’d just spent two years creating her.  I was clear on her motivations. I mean, you can’t write a mystery without knowing the motivations of all your characters.  Harrumph.)

But exercise by exercise, something happened. Although it was painful and I resisted every second of it, I could see that certain things I’d glossed over — especially her hometown (or lack thereof, as it turns out) — were extraordinarily important to her sense of self, which affects how she makes decisions, which affects the conflicts in the book. And as I incorporated some backstory into the novel, it led to ideas for other characters and future adventures. Bonus.

My teacher was absolutely right.

Sometimes it’s good to be a student again. Which is another kind of returning home.

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9 thoughts on “Home is Where the Character Is”

  1. Cynthia, this is so great. I love the drama of the writing workshop. I love you did it all to prove your teacher wrong. Yeah, been there. Yes, discovered the teacher just might have been right after all.

  2. Great post. I’ve come to know a lot about my characters over the years, and through various courses. In fact, my course samples often have everything to do with backstory, and little to “overtly” to with the main story question. Yes, most of it will never see the light of day. But if these people ever show up on my doorstep, we are going to have one heck of a conversation (starting with, “Why the heck did you marry HER?”). 🙂

  3. Theresa, thank you! So good to have kindred spirits in this endeavor.

    Mary, sounds like you have definitely done the necessary work…awesome job. And why DID he marry her? I am dying to know! 🙂

  4. What a great post!
    In general, I KNOW more than the reader knows about all my characters. The trick is to figure out how much they have to know, when & why. Love the idea of writing a character that is a blank and then going back to fill her in.

  5. Thanks for your comments, Candy. You are right: there is *so* much to consider re: revelation. Writers have to be magicians and jugglers, all at once!

  6. I love this. I love that you were going to prove her wrong, too! I think we as writers must continue to be students — maybe for life. I went to a writing conference and heard how the masters — james scott bell, chris vogler, donald maass, were still learning new things about story!

  7. Thanks, Kristi! That makes a good mantra: students for life. Would love to hear more about the conference, too, if you’re so inclined…maybe in a future post?

  8. This was such a wonderful post–I especially love that you did the work, even though the outcome was different than you expected. That’s a great lesson to remember, I think. Now I must run; apparently I need to finish thinking through some back story on my protagonist. 🙂

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