I want to talk for a bit about developing well developed characters. I’ve mentioned back-story before, but not in this context. I’m of the opinion that the most important part of a character is their history. It informs their reactions to current events, and in contemporary story-telling, sometimes a character’s reactions are all you’ve got to describe the character.
Why do I need a character backstory?
Let’s just go over, briefly, why that is so. Now it used to be that an author could spend pages describing a character and their history (or anything else for that matter. I remember reading a paragraph that lasted one whole page and was packed with dense description of a kitchen, or something. Not sure of the novel. Might have been Tess of the D’Urbervilles).
Not so these days. It’s the whole, “show, don’t tell” thing again. It’s considered much more effective to give an impression of the character through their actions and the way they perform them. Hints and clues. Less is more. This is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. Feel free to disagree of course, many do.
So it might be that a lot of the backstory of your character does not get put into words in your finished novel. Why should you bother developing one, then? I refer you to paragraph one. Writers often need something solid in their heads, or preferably written down, to get a real sense of the character’s motivations, and to know what they will do next. Armed with such priveledged knowledge, characters begin that process of “writing themselves” that we’ve all heard so much about.
So what’s this hotseat thing, then?
A few weeks back, I read a blog post that dealt with this issue. The author recommended a method I had used before, but not applied to writing.
As I commented at the time, this reminded me of drama lessons. The idea is based around interviewing a character. In the drama excercise, the actor sits in a chair in front of his or her peers. The actor is in character, having read the script and so armed with that knowledge.
They are then asked questions by the other people in the class and must improvise their character’s response. The idea is to fill in the gaps left by the script and gain greater insight into the character’s past and motivations, all of which can be brought to bear in performance.
In the writing exercise of course, you are both actor and questioner. It is your job to ask questions of your character, and also your job to respond as your character, by putting pen to paper. Again, you are improvising, or freewriting, and again, such freedom will give rise to unexpected events and reactions from your character. They will help make your character whole, and may even provide some future plot points for your story proper.
Don’t be coy when asking questions. You want to ask those questions to which you don’t yet know the answer, otherwise, what’s the point? And to help keep the flow, why not write out the questions beforehand, so you don’t keep having to pause to think of a new one halfway through the process. If you think of new questions during the improvisation, well just ask them then and there, and answer them then and there. Just as long as you’re not interrupting yourself.
When the time comes to do the answering, take a moment to get yourself into character. Imagine a scene with them in it, and imagine how they behave from what you know of them so far. Then go for it! Make your character honest for this round of questions, even if they are not normally. You’ll get more out of it I’m sure.
Anyway, that gives you an idea of how it worked for me during drama classes, and what helped then. At the moment I’m concentrating on a short story, but I’ll run through this exercise myself as soon as I’m done. I’ll let you know how I got on, and I’d like you to do the same!