Building Character and Backstory

One of the most difficult parts of writing for me is building character and backstory; that is, relaying background, traits, and relationships without vomiting exposition onto the page.

I have a nasty habit of trying to flesh out my characters by offering too little exposition and flamboyant dialogue, or vice versa. There is a fine line between what should be explained via action and what can be glossed over with a paragraph or two.

Ultimately, it is up to the author what pieces they want to show and which they want to tell. But first, you must learn how to properly do so.

This is where you will be inundated with advice to overdose on well-written books in order to get a grasp on the matter. But I also believe that movies and television shows are terrific mediums for understanding how to write characters.

For example, in the second scene of the first episode of the first season (still with me?) of Breaking Bad, we learn several pieces of character about the protagonist, or anti-hero, Walter White; all of it through dialogue.

  • He has high cholesterol
  • He has a job that he does not like and that overworks him
  • Money seems to be an issue within the family
  • His son has a speech or mental issue
  • He has some sort of sickness

These five points are pivotal to the story arc of Breaking Bad and are introduced in the first ten minutes of the show; we are now privy to the tone of the show and the shortcomings that drive Walter White to choose the paths that he does.

Again, all of these points are explained using dialogue, not visuals, which is essentially exposition.

Now let’s take a look at the movie version of The Last Airbender, and what it relays about the characters and backstory in the beginning scenes.

  • An info-dump prologue spews history that should have been worked in throughout the film (For more on prologues and why you should rarely, if ever, use them: check here and here
  • A voiceover tosses out information about two characters whose names we don’t even know
  • After discovering a tattooed boy inside a frozen orb, the two characters, who are still not introduced, act as if there is little amiss about this occurrence
  • The villain, who must be the villain because he wears black and sinister music plays, is the first person to be introduced with a name; he then promptly kidnaps both the elders of a village and the ice orb boy

That is all within the first ten minutes of The Last Airbender.

The exposition is confusing and bloated. The dialogue may as well be in a foreign tongue because it reveals nothing. And we don’t even know the main characters’ names – the screenwriters must have forgotten that the audience is not privy to the script and therefore cannot see the names of those speaking.

It’s easy to understand what a novelization of the movie may look like: paragraphs, paragraphs, and more paragraphs of exposition and explanation, yet illuminating nothing about the characters, backstory, or plot. If the opening of  your story has any similar elements, invest in a bevy of matches and flammable liquid.

Reading a plethora of literature remains the best tactic for learning how to properly write, but movies and television shows also offer tidbits of do’s and don’ts that are the crux of storytelling; such as telling the audience your character’s name within the first ten pages.

Which movies or television shows have you learned from? Which deserve to be buried in a paupers grave for their failures?

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5 thoughts on “Building Character and Backstory

  1. rebecca2000

    I have to say, a theater background helps with this part of the writing process for me. On stage we HAD to know the characters motivation for each action even if the audience never did.

    1. G.P. Merwede Post author

      That’s a great point. We always hear about actors creating a backstory for their characters despite it never being addressed to the audience. But in the case of writing, we obviously want to share that with the reader so when Johnny punches that monkey in the zoo, we know why.

      1. rebecca2000

        Yes. But even when he punches the monkey (hah monkey is my post today) and we know why. How is it that he got to the monkey in the start.

        I think often writers forget that the characters existed before the story starts. What was their childhood like. If they are passive why? Why would one person be willing to punch the monkey while another would just ignore it.

  2. IntrovertedAnalyst

    For me the show that’s taught me a fair amount that also has quite a few writing flaws is LOST- I’ve learned some good things about what to do and what not do from that. Principally what I learned from the way the first season developed is that it is possible to develop a ridiculous amount of characters simultaneously, if you can use them to play off each other and highlight different aspects of people’s personality (ie you see a very different side of Jack when he’s interacting with Sawyer than when he’s interacting with say, Claire or Charlie). The second and third seasons taught me that plot cannot and should not be suddenly altered or twisted, especially when there has been very little to set up such alterations or plot twists in the beginning. I still enjoy the show and find it fun to watch, but as far as storytelling goes, the whole thing is kind of a hot mess because there are plot threads and elements being suddenly dropped and then picked up, while other details are completely ignored and then picked up again later.
    So yeah, while I love the show, it’s given me quite a few hints on what to do and what to avoid, especially if you’re trying to write anything that’s a meandering story (and by that I just mean one that has a lot of threads and won’t be resolved quickly).

    1. G.P. Merwede Post author

      I haven’t watched Lost – I don’t get into television shows often – but I’ve obviously heard about its intricate storylines and characters, and about how the show began to take a turn for the worse in the later seasons.

      As you mentioned, if you can properly develop characters and have them react naturally to one another, you can successfully work their relationships into and throughout the plot. I believe that – and it should come as no surprise – that characters are the crux of your story. A weak plot can be buoyed by strong characters, but rarely does it work the other way – brings to mind the fact that every story has been written, but it all depends upon how you write it, which relies heavily on characters.

      Again, I don’t know much about Lost, but I heard about all the odd twists and turns it took, and I feel that it was probably due to the fact that the writers didn’t know how to get themselves out of situations – see: The Matrix Trilogy.

      And you’re absolutely right – something like that teaches you what not to do. You have this unique concept built around cornerstone characters, and then you introduce strange or bizarre happenings that do not fit into the canon of the story or world. The suspension of disbelief can only hold together when the same rules constantly apply. Once you begin to drift, the architecture of your world will weaken.

      I just finished ‘The Night Circus’ and, although the concept was strong, there was a lack of rules and too much writer freedom which pulled me out of the story. Too often was I left questioning if there were even any rules at all.

      Inception, which I understand as being set in some sort of near-future and is therefore science-fiction, does a good job of literally explaining the rules of the world by which the characters and the movie must abide. Star Wars does the same thing, bringing you into the fold of what is and isn’t possible. The Happening is an example of terrible storytelling because it jumps between setting rules, breaking rules, and then blending and mashing rules for convenience of plot.

      I think it’s difficult to write intricate, interwoven storylines – especially in a book – without losing your reader. There are so many things that can go wrong:

      - Too much time (pages) between coming back to that storyline
      - Readers forgetting who the characters are and what they’re doing
      - Attempting to bring too many characters into the fold and creating a convoluted story
      - Not giving equal weight to all of the characters, rendering them useless to the plot

      There are many other reasons, and that’s why when it’s done well, it is a writing achievement. Frank Miller’s ‘Sin City’ does this quite well.

      And in writing this I’ve also considered that videogames – especially role-playing games – can be used as guides for characters and plot. But a writer needs to understand that certain tropes only work in certain mediums.

      Like the Japaneses’ fondness for wide-eyed, cocaine-high, whack-a-mole sidekicks.

      George Lucas tried it. Didn’t work too well.


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