Friday, March 28, 2014

The Story Before the Story

Regardless of purpose or plot, three-dimensional characters that live and breathe and walk around in your head are what give a story life. One critical way to breathe life into a character is to provide a backstory. Generally, this is the character’s history that precedes the events of the plot and lends depth or believability to the main story.  It also provides motivation for the way the character responds to these events.

Backstory may be revealed by various means, including flashbacks, dialogue, direct narration, or recollection. In Windborne, most of the backstory is revealed through direct narration and dialogue. Each character’s story begins chronologically earlier than the narrative of primary interest.  This was done to provide motivation and believability for the character’s reactions later in the story.  For example, Virginia lavishes her love on her handicapped sister and her first born child. When she loses both, she begins to withhold affection from anyone else close to her and instead becomes overprotective of her few possessions. Helen grows up neglected and insecure: as a result, she ties herself to an abusive relationship thinking it is what she deserves. Leah longs for the security and stability she never had as a child, only to discover that it comes with a price—her independence.

In The Stone House Legacy, the backstory will be revealed through a combination of flashback and narration. Unlike Windborne, the backstory will not chronologically precede the main story. Instead it will be revealed gradually as the story unfolds.  The protagonist and antagonist will be more clearly defined so the challenge will be to find the “fatal flaw” in the antagonist that makes him vulnerable and the single redeeming characteristic in the antagonist that makes him sympathetic. Both must be revealed at just the right time to move the plot forward without giving anything away!

Many writers are masters of the plot, but fall short when it comes to making their characters real enough to be believable. It takes time to get to know your characters personally. To do so means getting inside their heads. In discovering their past and their memories, you must also analyze the effect these things have on the person they become in your narrative. You must get beneath the surface and really get to know your character.  If they are real to you, chances are they will be real to the reader.

Sometimes this means revealing more of your own past than you may be comfortable with. The good news is that you can still hide behind the thin veil of your character and choose just how much or how little to reveal. You can also embellish those details that help to move the plot forward and eliminate those that do not.  In Windborne, I  resurrected some painful memories, but the result was not only cathartic, it took the past off my shoulders and placed it squarely on the shoulders of my character.  I no longer have to own in alone! 

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