Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Reveal Your Characters Through Their Dilemmas

A great way to capture reader interest is to give the main characters of your short story or novel a dilemma that forces them to discover who they really are.

To make the most of this technique, consider these key elements:
  • Creating effective scenes
  • Depicting characters who are unaware of something critical 
  • Developing a character who has died
It has been said that first we make our choices then our choices make us. This is no less true of fictional characters. There’s nothing like being faced with a problem with far-reaching consequences to find out what you’re made of. When you give the people in your stories a life-altering problem to solve, you give them an opportunity to explore and discover who they are, warts and all.

To do this effectively, consider which major problem your main character must solve. Which problem will best drive plot, affect the other characters and serve the story?

To make this technique effective, each scene in your story must reveal more about the characters and advance the plot. In short, what do readers know after having read a scene that they didn’t know before? If the scene doesn’t build on the one before, to expand the reader’s knowledge, then it isn’t a real scene but needless repetition.

Another consideration is the paradox of depicting a character who's unaware of something crucial, for example, a wife and mother who’s always on the road for work and is unaware that her marriage and family are in shambles. The paradox for the writer is that although the character is unaware, the writer must be intimately familiar with these realities and depict them in a way that deepens the characters and propels the story with each new portrayal. In short, the character can be clueless in certain situations but she’s clueless for a reason, and it’s the writer’s job to artfully show why that is.

One major problem a character may face is one we face, too. What happens when someone important to us dies? One way to depict a key character who has died is through self-expression, for example, though letters or journals the person has left behind. In the tech age, cellphones can act as sound and/or video recording devices. However, in each of these techniques, the character is doing the telling or showing. And they may or may not be a reliable source.

A more powerful method is the recollections of others who knew the person. How do they remember her? What do they think of her now that she’s gone? What kind of legacy has she left behind? What were her secrets? Why did she keep them? What feelings does her memory evoke in others? To learn a masterful treatment of these questions, read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, either again or for the first time, to study how the author used other people’s memories, which varied from lionization to loathing, to reveal who Rebecca was.

Like a series of witnesses called to testify to the person’s true character and motives, this treatment allows readers to draw their own conclusions. Of course, the selective memories of others and their responses to those say as much or more about them as about the character, but that’s the point. The testimony of others is an effective way to depict a character who has left this mortal coil, with the added benefit that the portrayal is even stronger because the character is a haunting presence perpetually waiting in the wings.

Whether you’re writing flash or family saga, your characters aren’t who they are based solely how they grew up or where they live. They’re also who they are based on their choices, and that’s usually how they’ll be remembered.

For questions on depicting characters and other elements of craft in fiction writing, contact Word for Words.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Rearview: How and When to Use Backstory Effectively

Ah, backstory, that bane and blessing of the writer's existence. The questions writers in all genres often ask are what details about the past to include, how much to include and where to include them.

One definition of backstory is events that aren’t happening now but had a part in creating them. According to award-winning author Peter Selgin, “Whatever beginning we choose, there’s always another behind it, and another behind that.”

To use the backstory craft element effectively, writers of fiction and nonfiction can consider these three guidelines: Avoid putting it at the beginning of a piece. Use the right medium for the message. Aim for balance.

Backstory doesn't usually work at the start of a story because it slows the reader. Imagine a rail station master who announces a schedule delay then delivers detailed reasons why. While the information may explain long service will be out, especially in an emergency, what's usually first in importance is when you'll reach your destination.

Another consideration in effective use of backstory is the right medium for the message. Common fiction options include flashbacks, current scenes and dialogue. In nonfiction, you can include paragraphs explaining the history that led to a current event, for example, memories from an interviewee. But how can you tell which option is best for your project?

The answer depends on how much information you need to convey and how important it is. It’s generally best to convey only what's relevant to the piece and to present the information succinctly. This way you won’t slow the momentum of the work or bog readers down in a sudden influx of past events.

To decide which medium is best, consider where you are in the overall narrative. Do you need to slow the pace? Consider a flashback or informative paragraph. Do you want to build suspense? A smattering of dialogue or mini scene could be effective. As an analogy, take the ellipsis, which conveys words said but not recorded. In using backstory, pare down what you put into your medium to the essentials.

Another guideline is not revealing too much too soon. Instead, sprinkle bits and pieces of prior events throughout the narrative, to advance the story and reveal more about the people in it. And keep in mind that backstory can include elements as subtle as a scar on a woman's hand to a scene between a dying father and his daughter.

So, what's the perspective on backstory in a nutshell? Put it in the right place at the right time using the right amount of detail. Select the container as you'd select a gift box; pick the one that best fits what you're giving. Use only the information you need most at that point in your piece.

Resources:
For questions on backstory and other elements of craft in fiction writing, contact Word for Words.