Wednesday, October 1, 2008

On Backstory

Via Bookshelf Muse and PubRants, a Writer's Digest article on What Agents Hate. Some good advice, but this one really stood out to me:

“Many writers express the character’s backstory before they get to the plot. Good writers will go back and cut that stuff out and get right to the plot. The character’s backstory stays with them—it’s in their DNA.
“To paraphrase Bruno Bettelheim: ‘The more the character in a fairy tale is described, the less the audience will identify with him. … The less the character is characterized and described, the more likely the reader is to identify with him.’ ”
—Adam Chromy, Artists and Artisans
This one really resonated with me. The first book I wrote, I made a conscious effort to include as little physical description of the main character as possible: I wanted readers to be able to project themselves into that heroine role. Personally, I dislike a lot of physical description of characters in a story--I always imagine myself in the story, and too much physical description threw me out of the story.

However, all my beta readers wanted to know more about what the main character looked like. It bothered them that I hadn't included that information.

There's a fine line there. Think of Harry Potter: we all know what he looked like (even before Daniel Radcliffe), and that book was not one that threw me out of the story, despite the fact that it was a skinny 12 year old as the narrator.

What it comes down to is this: relevance. If the details are relevant, then there's a purpose to it; it becomes part of the story. Harry Potter's physical description is often describe as messy black hair, jade green eyes, and the scar. Each of these things is important to the character development and the plot.

Now, I know that physical description isn't the same thing as background, but it is a part of it. And, as with physical description: relevance is the key.


Keri Mikulski said...

This blog has super timing.. Ah, the back story.

Thanks for the tips.

PJ Hoover said...

I'm hugely lax in description, and most of the time intentionally. Character description, that is. I'm working on being more subtle about incorporating it, but when I see a paragraph with nothing but what the character looks like, I shudder.
Except my current WIP in which it's in the very first paragraph. Ack! But not the protagonist.
OK, I'm rambling. Time to revise.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for quoting me - I have google alerts on my name ;-)
Anyway, you bring up a good point about description. I think the key is for the characters' descriptions to come later (and that's why I say its in the DNA) after they have been inserted into some action. So the undescribed character faces a dilema, we empathize with them becaue the are a blank slate into which we insert ourselves. And then later when we find out they are short (and we are tall) it doesnt matter because we have already bonded with their plight. But if we hear they are tall/short before the action that connects us then don't care about their plight.