Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A Character's Course Through a Story

A Character's Course
Through a Story

Summer is often about going light and airy--shorts and a breezy blouse, a salad or a slice of watermelon, a book on the beach with your toes in the sand, so let's take that route through character development.  Better yet, let's approach it with another summer pass time in mind, golf-- a character course in nine holes.

We'll take this course one hole at a time, adding a new hole a day!

Hole One: The Clubs You Bring Onto the Course AKA Backstory
In golf, you're swinging to hit the ball into the hole in as few shots as possible using different clubs, judging the lay of land, and doing the legwork to get that ball to the flag. Characters can work much the same way. You to create them in as few strokes as possible using the best tools and covering the distance from first page to last by judging the lay of the land in the fictional world that unfolds as you write it.

For your first tee shot, it's all about the clubs you bring onto the course and the metaphor is apt in more ways than one. In creating a character with compelling backstory, you have to remember that much of that character's story remains "under the rim" of the bag and the surface of the story until you pull a club out to take a swing. And each part of that story as a different purpose in your story like a driver is much different than a putter. With emotional situations that are raw and real and lead your character rash action, they are swung hard and fast like a driver. Emotional issues that are delicate and require diplomacy, you swing slow and easy with great care and aim like a putter.

For me, I come to the course with my bag of clubs aka backstory, but I allow my subconscious to choose the clubs.  I just pick the bag--the point when everything that changes, the incident that shapes who the character is at the beginning of the story--the storm that leads to a farming accident that takes away the use of a boy's leg (Worth), the end of slavery that frees a young boy to go find the mother who was sold away from him (Walking Home to Rosie Lee), and the adoptee who is terrified of water has to go live on a lake for the summer (Water Steps).  From there, I let the backstory unfold as the events do, asking myself "What would my character do now? Why?"

An understanding of character motivation and life-shaping events is essential here--study it in the books you read, the movies you watch, the people you meet, and consider a course in psychology via a book or an actual class. All of these things will be instrumental in helping you shape your character's past and remember--give everyone a past or the secondary and tertiary characters won't seem real.

Keep in mind, everyone plays golf differently, so everyone creates their character backstory differently. Find the way that works for you!

Here's an article from Rachel Ballon to offer you another perspective on developing backstory:
"How to Weave in Backstory to Reveal Character"

How do you incorporate backstory?

Hole 2: Swing with Distinction

Making your character unique is an essential of character development. You want your character to be someone your readers can relate to, but that can be as simple as making them a golfer--allowing them to have a hobby, need, or desire that readers in your target audience share.

Stake is an essential for your readers as well. That's the need/want that drives your character through the story aka keeps them on the golf course plugging away that little round ball. It could be a hole in one they're looking for here, but whatever it is, it should be internal and external. The hole in one is an external goal. Internally, the character may be trying to control their temper so they don't wrap their golf club around a tree when they miss a shot.

My dad frequently came home with bent clubs claiming that he was attacked by a heard of buffalo that he had to fight off with his club or get trampled.  Let's just say, I came by my ability to spin a tale naturally and my dad was a definitely a distinct character!

You also want your character to have a distinct voice. To speak in a way others do not.  Does your character constantly use shopping metaphors? Do they speak in as few words as possible? Run off at the mouth? Use a catch phrase like, "As long as no one swallowed a bug, we're good" is that because he swallowed a bee as a child and discovered he was allergic?

As I said, backstory is important and should be woven in.  You can also distinguish characters through the pasts you create, the clothes they wear, the pets who follow them, the things they do every Tuesday at 9:15 AM.

Let your character walk off the page by being a unique individual with layers, voice, and motivations!

But don't just take my word for it, here's
an article on giving your character a distinctive voice by fiction editor, Beth Hill
Variety in Character Voices

How do you make your characters distinctive?

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