Posted On May 18, 2012 by Print This Post

Converting Backstory into Character with Theresa Stevens, Editor

Theresa Stevens joins RU once again (yay!) to lead us through the process of character development. Fire up your printers RU writers, this one is a keeper!

I recently led a friend of mine through an exercise designed to shape a character, and with her permission, we’re going to discuss that exercise here. We run into this sort of issue pretty frequently: a character has a strong backstory, but that doesn’t quite translate into a strong, solid character. In this case, the character – we’ll call her Ashley – was defined as a woman in her mid-20s whose father is an abusive alcoholic.

That single fact drove most of the character creation, and was the answer to almost every question about this character. What was Ashley’s romantic history? Light and sporadic, because she can’t trust men because her father was an abusive alcoholic. What does she look for in a man? Sobriety. And so on, each question leading back to that single backstory detail. No matter the question, the answer was, “Daddy was a mean drunk.” In fact, here is what my friend offered as a brief character description:

She’s been conditioned that people will always disappoint her. Her father disappoints her by constantly falling off the wagon. Every time she puts any faith in him, he blows it. Her mother (although she has a good relationship with her) disappointed her because she never had the strength to leave Ashley’s dad and give Ahsley a more stable environment.

This is good, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. My friend, to her credit, knew something was off with this character but was having trouble grasping the smoke. The problem is one of focus. Daddy’s not in this book. The story isn’t about letting go of the original family. This is a straightforward romance novel with a strong external plot that doesn’t involve Ashley’s dad at all. So this means that every time we were talking about the backstory, we were talking about events that occurred outside the scope of this plot. Those events have no relevance OTHER THAN the way they shaped Ashley’s character.

So we had to reframe Ashley’s character. We had to focus on the results (how she behaves in real story time), rather than the cause (Daddy was a mean drunk).

Step one in this exercise was to come up with a list of character traits. I forbid my writing friend from mentioning Ashley’s father at all. I told her to come up with a simple list of character traits to describe Ashley. Each trait should be expressed in a word or two. Here is what she sent:

Suspicious

Controlling

Self-contained

Lonely

Miserly (in that she can pinch a penny until the head pops off. LOL)

Dependable (if she wants it done, she does it herself)

Driven

That’s a sad list, isn’t it? The traits seem overwhelmingly negative. This is a romantic heroine we’re talking about. The reader will want to be able to identify with this character, so that negativity might be a barrier. Also, keep in mind that we’re trying to understand how a formative situation shapes character. Ashley was forged in fire, and these kinds of circumstances can make you hard, but they can also make you strong.

So the next step was to challenge my friend to find a positive way to express these traits. Almost every aspect of character can be positive or negative, depending on how it is expressed in the story. So I asked her to look at her list and think of positive ways these traits might manifest. For example, a suspicious character might be hard to fool, which would be a good trait in a romantic suspense novel, right?

Here is what my friend generated:

Negative                      Positive

Suspicious                   Won’t be fooled

Controlling                  Orderly

Miserly                      Responsible with money

Self-contained             Self-sufficient

Lonely                          Doesn’t need to be entertained

Driven                         Wants to do a good job

Now we understand the different ways that the same basic trait might be expressed in the course of the plot. After getting this far and looking at her list more closely, we realized that Ashley’s core trait is that she’s cautious. This caution is expressed in multiple ways, and almost every trait on the above list, both positive and negative, can be seen as an expression of that cautiousness. Now we’re starting to really understand what drives Ashley, but there’s still one more step.

That final step is figuring out how these traits manifest in the world Ashley inhabits. This is where things get really interesting. Look at that list and think about some aspect of Ashley’s present world and how it might be impacted by each trait. Do you see any potential conflicts? I do. For example, if she’s good with money, but miserly, does she buy an investment property like an apartment building to live in, or a tiny condo with low payments, or something else? If she’s self-contained and entertains herself, does she have a great television system and movie collection, or does her miserliness keep her from spending money on this sort of thing? If she’s put on a work project team with a sexy, smoking hot hero, will she agree to work late and discuss the project over drinks?

By thinking of these kinds of potential issues in the character formation stage, you not only develop a deeper understanding of the character, but you develop a sense of how different aspects of that character are prioritized. Which will she value more, saving money or protecting her privacy? In times of stress, does she hide or does she try to control everything? In the end, when this exercise is complete, you will have a more fully developed character, and you will understand better how to portray her in a deep, complex way.

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RU writers, what’s your process for developing your character?

Join us on Monday with Ollin Morales’ post What Charlie Chaplin Can Teach You About Writing A Great Love Story

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Bio: Theresa Stevens is the Publisher of STAR Guides Publishing, a nonfiction publishing company with the mission to help writers write better books. After earning degrees in creative writing and law, she worked as a literary attorney agent for a boutique firm in Indianapolis where she represented a range of fiction and nonfiction authors. After a nine-year hiatus from the publishing industry to practice law, Theresa worked as chief executive editor for a highly acclaimed small romance press, and her articles on writing and editing have appeared in numerous publications for writers. Visit her blog at http://edittorrent.blogspot.com/ where she and her co-blogger share their knowledge and hardly ever argue about punctuation.

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34 Responses to “Converting Backstory into Character with Theresa Stevens, Editor”

  1. Morning Theresa!!

    I am SO printing this out! I do exactly the same thing….it’s great to know there’s a way to turn negative into positive! =) I really need to spend more time developing my character before I write – otherwise the first three chapters are just discovering who they are!

    Thanks for another great post Theresa!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | May 18, 2012, 7:35 am
  2. Theresa –

    This came at the perfect time for me as I was beginning to struggle with my heroine. I’ve already used this to make notes and home in on the character traits that will most impact the story and her character arc.

    Thanks!
    Kels

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | May 18, 2012, 7:57 am
  3. Theresa, This is great! I’m a backstory monster, so I should print this out and eat it :) My heroine has a mentally ill mom and this is how all my answers were, all her character traits led down the ‘I’m going to go as crazy as mommy’ path.

    But what I really loved about this post is the positive/negative aspect of character traits. When you think of your character as won’t-be-fooled instead of suspicious, you write her a whole different way. Wow, think I just had a lightbulb moment!

    Thank you!

    Sonali

    Posted by Sonali | May 18, 2012, 8:00 am
    • Tastes like chicken! lol

      That positive/negative aspect exercise is one of my favorites. It’s one of the easiest ways to understand a character in toto. Because, really, almost any trait can lead us to behave in positive or negative ways, depending on circumstances. Understanding the way a character *behaves* is the real key!

      Posted by Theresa Stevems | May 18, 2012, 8:04 am
  4. Thanks Theresa – fabulous post, as always!

    Posted by Anonymous | May 18, 2012, 8:07 am
  5. Hi Theresa,

    The good and bad list is a great idea. My heroine needs to share more and let someone else drive once and awhile. Being independent is good, being demanding is not.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | May 18, 2012, 8:11 am
  6. Great post! I appreciate the idea of looking at a character’s traits (one or two words only!) as positive and negative. I don’t think I can really qualify my story as a typical romance any longer (it’s about a dude), but this does help me with sorting out in my head why he’s chosen to do some things in his life. Before, it just “felt” right…now, there’s a justifiable reason for it! :)

    Posted by Mayumi-H | May 18, 2012, 8:18 am
    • This isn’t really a romance-specific exercise, but something that applies to any strong, complex characters. Sometimes we confuse “building a character” with “building a character history” — and this can happen in any type of book!

      Posted by Theresa Stevems | May 18, 2012, 10:19 am
  7. Great post. Your final point, about how to tie these to conflicts in the story, reflects one of the ways I build character. I think about what CHOICES I give them in the story. Do they choose the way that reflects the backstory? Or the way that shows they have grown? (E.g, completed the character arc.)

    Posted by Blythe Gifford | May 18, 2012, 8:34 am
  8. What a terrific exercise, Theresa!

    It occurred to me while reading this that the positive/negative of each trait depends on whose point of view we’re in, and it could be used to set up some fun romantic conflict. He thinks of her as miserly, but she’s always considered herself good with money. She thinks of him as controlling, but he insists that he merely likes things orderly.

    Posted by Laurie London | May 18, 2012, 8:47 am
  9. Thanks!
    I’ve been a pantser who just went with what felt right for a long time.
    However, having a ‘Full’ requested and rejected three times has made me start doing things differently. My problem was that what was in my head wasn’t always getting to the pages in a way that readers could embrace.
    I’m still pantsing my first draft, but then I’m using a story board to strip it down and make sure my arcs are solid etc etc. Now I will add a place on my board for positive and negative character traits so I can track my character’s responses, reactions etc.
    thanks!

    Posted by kc stone | May 18, 2012, 9:13 am
    • KC, I hope it helps! Pantsers with strong instincts for story can generate something wonderful on a first draft, but it still might need some shaping before it’s ready for publication. This is normal! And it sounds as though you’re discovering tools to help you with that shaping process — just keep at it! :)

      Posted by Theresa Stevems | May 18, 2012, 10:22 am
  10. Brilliant! I’ve had this issue with a couple of characters who, like Ashley, were shaped by incidents and people in their past. I bookmarked it AND printed it out. Thanks for this super-helpful exercise!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | May 18, 2012, 9:57 am
  11. I love the positive/negative list. My hero has a problem controlling his temper. On an earlier version he was sounding violent instead of just frustrated with other people’s behavior. When one of my readers pointed this out, I went back to look at the words I used to describe him. There were many that had negative connotations, which I replaced by more positive ones. My heroine has been waiting for him for ten years, he needs to be worth the wait.

    Posted by Patchi | May 18, 2012, 10:32 am
    • That’s good, Patchi! Instead of focusing on the negative behavior (violent outbursts), you focused on the more positive underlying cause (frustration with other people’s behavior, maybe because of high standards? — just a guess). This kind of shift in perspective can make a world of difference in the character’s portrayal.

      Posted by Theresa Stevems | May 18, 2012, 12:17 pm
  12. Hands down, the best example of how to develop a character I’ve come across in 10 years.

    I love that by the end, I was thinking about story conflict based on the character. E.g. she’s put in work situation where there’s alcohol and she’s uncomfortable which impacts her effectiveness. Or, she sees the hero with a drink in his hand, assumes it’s alcohol, and acts based on her assumption.

    I’ve always been able to create great backstory but wasn’t always sure how to translate it into my character’s present in a meaningful way.

    Thank you!

    Posted by PatriciaW | May 18, 2012, 11:54 am
  13. Well, I’m not ashamed to admit I was the “friend” Theresa worked with on this exercise. This was a major lightbulb moment for me. I knew the character’s backstory and why she had certain traits, but I had no idea how to make those traits relate to my external plot.

    This was a terrific exercise that helped me really get to know the character and why she makes certain decisions.

    Thanks again, Theresa! You’re a gem!

    Posted by AdrienneGiordano | May 18, 2012, 12:18 pm
  14. Patricia, I’m blushing! Thanks for that amazing compliment! You seem to “get” that the way the backstory impacts the present story events is what will make it interesting. :)

    Posted by Theresa Stevems | May 18, 2012, 12:19 pm
  15. Thank you for your post, Theresa. Lots of helpful info here.

    I especially appreciate the positive/negative bit, and the part about conflicting results. Often my characters are at war with themselves. This write-up should help me and others like me to create such characters and describing their interactions with other characters.

    Just my opinion, but I don’t care for what I call excess-baggage protagonists. For example, often a romance writer describes a hero’s miserable past in great detail. She goes on and on about how it has a huge, crushing impact on his present. He’s unable to deal with it constructively and on his own (i.e. without the heroine redeeming him).

    I know this character type is immensely popular. But he’s no hero to me. I’d rather read a romance (or any other type of fiction) in which the protagonists are better able to take on challenges, both within and without. And in which the author keeps the backstory to a minimum.

    I think an author should focus on what’s going on in the main narrative. If the backstory is all that interesting—well, it shouldn’t be the backstory.

    Of course, I create my own fiction along these lines. I don’t know if characters who travel lightly, without all that emotional baggage, will sell. But I’ll find out.

    Keep up the good work!

    Posted by Mary Anne Landers | May 18, 2012, 12:35 pm
  16. That positive/negative trait thing is great. And I think it can also provide the core for a character arc – there’s little chance that a hesitant character will become a successful risktaker, but instead of missing out on chances because they’re *too* cowardly, they’ll progress cautiously and with confidence.

    Posted by green_knight | May 18, 2012, 4:00 pm
  17. Thank you so much for sharing. My writer (Vicki), is good, but she wasn’t quite getting me. All she saw was the negative traits. Of course, I tried my best to tell her I’m fabulous. After reading your post I do believe she’s got it now. I love this!!! :)

    Posted by Vicki Lane | May 18, 2012, 5:55 pm
  18. This is so awesome! I want to do this right now! It reminds me of the idea of heroic character flaws, taking these things that are actually good to a negative extreme.

    (And of course, that’s another awesome post by Theresa!)

    Posted by Jordan McCollum | May 19, 2012, 5:13 pm

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