Posted On May 27, 2016 by Print This Post

Converting Backstory into Character with Theresa Stevens, Editor

Due to an unexpected glitch, we’re re-running a post by our favorite editor Theresa Stevens!

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?

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

  1. Very nice article. Will save for future reference.

    Posted by Carol Baldwin | May 27, 2016, 7:36 am
  2. RU writers, what’s your process for developing your character?

    I first start off with the natural ones, e.g. height, weight, eye color, hair color, This gives me a chance to ask it their eyes might me a strange color or maybe their height makes them feel shy or in charge.

    Next, I work on their likes and dislikes. e.g. Do they eat meat? Do they like to walk in the rain? Do they like to study? Do they hate when people talk down to them? This information helps me with the settings. I can make the character happy or miserable by using their likes and dislikes.

    Now, I try and figure out their back story. I know you said you can’t use this in a story a lot, but it comes in handy. e.g. If there is a family reunion, will a lot of people be there? Will they all get along? Is the character an only child and used to being by themselves? Do they have trouble at family gatherings?

    I tend to write a story as it appears in my head. I put my characters into a situation and then start moving them around. It’s like a little mini movie to me, which I cut and splice in my head. Many times I have to back track a bit, because the character would not say or do what I have written. Or, I come up with a brilliant idea on what they would have said or done instead.

    Posted by Jane | May 27, 2016, 10:47 pm
  3. Great! I am going to check out the article its very informative thanks to share this.

    Posted by Essay Papers | June 8, 2016, 3:01 am

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  1. […] Converting Backstory into Character with Theresa Stevens, Editor Theresa Stevens, on the Romance University Blog about how to leverage your character’s backstory to deepen their characterisation. […]

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