Part 1 To Boldly Go
Part 2 Mutant Saga
4- All it takes is one good backstory to really flesh out a character.
There is a quote about characterization that I've heard from a number of Creative Writing instructors about the full character being like an iceberg--only 10% of their backstory ever comes onto the page, but all of it informs who the character is. The instructors always want to put the quote in the mouth of their favorite writers, so I've heard it attributed to Hemingway, Woolf, and even Orwell. One guy was absolutely sure that he was the one who came up with it. (I'm pretty sure he also was so narcissistic that he thought he invented toast and the question mark though, so let's not take him too seriously.) I don't know who actually said it--even the crowdsourced wisdom of the internet disagrees on the particulars of who said it and exactly how the quote goes, but the point is that you think about the life of your character even though it may never come onto the page because it will still inform the way they behave, the choices they make, and their reaction to certain kinds of events.
A lot of people hear this advice and write down lots of information about their every character. They have thick dossiers on anyone important enough to show up more than a couple of times that include everything from favorite color to hometown. They have codexes of a character's every minutiae.
I'm not even kidding. I talked to one woman who knew where her character (from a 15 page short story) was ticklish and where she wasn't. All the places. I asked her if her character got tickled a lot in her story--or even at all--and she just looked at me like I was an idiot. "No," she said. "It's one of Berstromanifitch's 1500 questions that fully flesh out a character."
But fleshing out a character simultaneously goes beyond, and is far easier than, filling out a technical schematic on their every trivial detail. Facts and figures about phobias, education, sexual kinks, odious personal habits, and whether they prefer asparagus, Brussels sprout, or kale flavored yogurt might be useful, but what you really need is to think of a good past experience and how it might affect your character. And here's the kicker--it really only takes one good one. The reduction of a character to facts and figures strips it of the flavor and the meaning. The gestalt of a single good memory does more than all those diagrams.
Sunday day it was my honor to take part in one of--if not the--most spectacular LARP experiences I had ever played in. The Storytellers really took the time and effort to create something magical. All the effort that goes into making a good LARP, they had managed threefold, and it really showed through.
The basic premise was Arabian Nights. It started with someone (Scheherazade, I'm guessing) telling her husband a story to avoid death, and the story was us. We were in a generic middle eastern country experiencing our Arab spring. And when the tear gas landed, we all had a dream. In the dream I was a jinn trying to earn his freedom so he could be with his love. We were forbidden by our human master even to touch. The game unfolded with secret desires, hidden and mistaken identities, and dark forces at work to undermine everything. The storytellers have run the game three times, so they're not likely to do so again, but JUST IN CASE....I wouldn't want to do too many spoilers. Let's just say that the way we managed to play out the plots, my character ended up free with his love and when we touched, we shifted into our natural forms of Wind and Fire. (Clearly Earth was back at home, setting up the disco ball for our return.)
|And when we touched, it was HOT.
Like lava....on the sun......in a heatwave.....during a really dry summer. Yeah.
(Image credit is unknown, but I would love to give proper attribution, a linkback, and mad props.)
Though the game was absolutely amazing, the interesting thing to me as a writer was how everyone changed from having had the experience of the dream. Timid people found their courage about certain issues. Priorities shifted for better or for worse. One character gained the strength to stand up to her father. My character became less interested in just hanging out with his friends to make sure they don't get hurt, and more aware that freedom is the most precious gift--also that I really wanted to ask the reporter with the fiery hair to coffee. One learned that some people need to be protected from the truth even if that meant lying. But we were all far more fleshed out as characters when we moved forward...because of the single backstory. We had gone from flat characters of empty statistics to something real.
We were all still holding the exact same character sheet as earlier in the game. We had the details of who we were--facts and figures. A strength. A weakness. An ally. A problem. What changed us into interesting characters instead of a collection of statistics wasn't a more extensive biography, a medical history going back three generations, or any sort of clinical list. It was a moment--full of flavor and life and angst and emotion and how we felt and how we burned (literally in my girlfriend's case) for what we wanted to have. For what became apparent to us. I almost was still a petty jinn by the end of that game, but I realized that the person who set me free and reunited me with my love was about to lose his own freedom...and for the act of granting me mine. That was the moment I changed. And that's not a fact or a figure, or something you will find on a post it note inside a dossier.
The writer from the above example could have had a much more meaningful time imagining just one moment where tickling went too far and what happened, and how that affected her as a person than to decide whether she was equally ticklish on the bottom of her feet or her armpits.
So to writers filling notebooks with every detail of their characters' lives: that's okay--especially if you enjoy it--but be careful that you aren't just creating reams of detailed flat characters. And be super careful that you're not just giving yourself one more thing to do that is NOT writing. Fleshing a character out doesn't come from the addition of further sterile details. Because the most detailed character is still flat if you're fleshing out the wrong part. Consider instead that imagining the genuine emotional crux of a single moment within their life that affects who they are as a person may help you characterize them infinitely better than thirty pages of where they did their postgraduate work and every phone number they've had since they were three.
THE FINAL PART--It's okay if your world breaks the rules if it does it consistently. My Little Pony review.