Friday, January 29, 2016

Backstory, Part 2 – Tortured Souls

Last week, I attempted to convince everyone that backstory is not only essential to good characters, but vital to the existence of your story.

If I didn’t convince you last week, I doubt I’ll ever convince you, so I’ll spend no further time trying. Instead, I want to look at three different “parts” of backstory. Parts that are good or bad or different or vital or consistently missing from your average story.

Today I want to focus on a very specific type of backstory and the resulting character. They’ve become most especially popular in the last ~30 years or so, but they’ve been around since long before then.
I’m talking about the broken character, the character with a past.

The Picture of Pain

Imagine this: your character grows up on the streets, an orphan, because their parents were murdered. Now your character steals and kills to stay alive. They have scars – physical, emotional, mental, you name it – and they have learned to shove aside emotion and attachment and just survive.

Or perhaps they aren’t an orphan at all. Instead, they still live at home, under the tyranny of an abusive parent (or two). They stay because they have to protect their younger siblings from the beatings and the curses and the darkness. They endure the hurt and the pain, all the while daydreaming of a life where there parent doesn’t exist.
Or perhaps another example: your character is an adult (I know, adult characters are such a novel idea, aren’t they?) who had a perfectly fine childhood, great parents, great schooling, all of it. Except, at some point, they experience a loss (their job and/or romantic relationship are a common choice for devastating loss) that crushes them. They turn to something else in order to compensate. Whether they begin to drink or smoke or dabble in crime or hurt themselves or whatever it is, they’re broken.

People are fascinated by broken characters. We love them in novels due to one of two reasons:
a) We empathize
We feel deeply for these sorts of characters because we experienced the same sort of loss/hurt/abuse/pain. These characters remind us of… well, of us.
b) We wonder
People read stories about broken characters and wonder “what would I do?” They wonder if they would make the same choices – good or bad – or if they’d do something different.

If people like to read about characters that had a hard past, they must be worth writing, right?
Not… necessarily.
See, authors also have this tendency to overdo it. They squash so much pain into one life that it’s not feasible for that character to have possibly survived.

Characters that experience pain are real. Characters that experience torture are not. I’m not talking about hanging them on a rack and flogging them (although this can be the case); I’m talking about characters that are so beaten down by everything around them that it is too painful to watch.
How does someone even imagine this character to life? This character has been so beaten down and broken and attacked and hurt and maimed and scorned. What sort of imagination creates that?

It’s okay for characters to experience pain. Loss is a part of life. Abuse is a very real horror and should be presented as such. Addiction is real. Hurt is real. Pain is real.
But that doesn’t mean we have to indulge in it.
Another blogger (who I seem to tend to link to at random times) created this post a while back about exploiting suffering in writing.  It’s an excellent post that delves deeper into this idea of “too much suffering”.

The basic takeaway? Pain is okay. Excessive pain is not.

How does your character cope with tragedy? If they do indeed suffer a tragic loss, how do they move on with life?
To be extremely general, there are three ways people deal with pain:

The Survivor

They experience it, and then they survive. Yes, it’s pain. Yes, it hurts. They let it hurt. And then they move on. Sometimes it’s rough, somedays are harder than others. Survival is key, to them. They deal with the pain when it comes and put it behind them.
This sort of character is the least likely to come across as “broken” in the truest sense. A twinge of sadness when he walked by the restaurant he used to take his wife to, before she died. A tear or two when she curls up to sleep without dinner – again.
As I like to put it, these are the kind of character that have fallen apart and pieced themselves back together. They’re one of my favorite kinds of characters. You can tell they broke, once, but they learned how to work the hot glue gun at the craft store and they almost look… normal.

The Gutter-rat

Next come the Gutter-rats. Some characters who fit this type aren’t specifically rats, nor do they necessarily live in a gutter. But their mental and emotional states clearly point to their living in a state that is less than desirable for happiness and joy.
Street urchins are a common example of this (because they also happen to live in an actual gutter), as well as characters who became addicted to something because of a tragic hurt/loss.
These characters have no real hope inside them. Even if the story is about their realizing hope is out there somewhere, they start with nothing and are often… depressing. They make the book dark and moody. That isn’t always bad, but it can be. Coupled with heavy themes and/or heavy content, this can drag a book down into the category of “that kind” that everyone reads and then wanders around wondering what the meaning of life really is (besides 42). 

Gutter-rats can (and have been) used to great power and amazing themes, but they can also be hard. Spend to long drudging the bottom of their blackened souls and your reader starts to wonder about the color of your soul.

The Denier

Finally, there are those characters which refuse to admit that they’re in pain. They shove it off, wear a mask.
This sort of broken character is rarer than the other two, which is what makes it so fascinating. They feel this pain, but they don’t identify its source. Whether by choice or inability, they are unable to deal with what they feel. They go on with their lives and everything is bland.
Until they learn to deal with their pain, they can’t really live.
The Denier stands at the crossroads and refuses to choose. Their life has gone static until they choose: Survive or Crash. Head for the gutter or the craft store.

Painlessly painful


How do we create empathic characters without driving their suffering to the point of excessive and unnecessary?
In some ways, it’s fairly simple, but in others it can take a lot of personal contemplation.

First, draw a line in the sand. Choose a form of suffering that makes you too uncomfortable to write about. There are so many options for pain (which is a sad fact, but still true). Many of them are too painful to even consider writing. So draw your line and stick by it. If pop culture pressures you, don’t give in. It’s up to you to decide what you write about and what your characters go through.

Second, limit individual’s pain. If your character has already been through a war and struggles with PTSD, don’t chop off their arm and toss them into a pit full of lions that just finished off his daughter. Not only is that sadistic (and not in the modern sense of “hey this is cool, that makes it twisted up”, but “there is something seriously wrong with you”), but it’s too much.
Depending on the type of pain, this limit can range from only one form of pain to a dozen.
Start at the line you drew. Then rank the pain you’ve given your character. The closer it is to your line, the smaller the number of other pains that should accompany it.

A bump on the elbow ranks low.
Losing a child ranks high.

Third, develop your character’s reaction. Are they a Survivor? A Gutter-rat? A Denier? Delve into this reaction and learn how they tick. Get out the glue gun, the gutter, the procrastination (their procrastination, not yours), and figure out how they work.

Be Unique

I thought about using the word “diverse” instead of unique, but I’ve been using that word a lot recently, so I decided to branch out and try something different (you know you see what I did there).

Don’t content yourself with the pain that every other character experiences.
Yes, being an orphan is painful.
But so is losing a child in a miscarriage.
So is failing to get into college after dreaming of it and making plans based off it.
So is being excluded from a social group, this clique or that.

Don’t settle.
Be unique [diverse]. Let your characters form their choices and let the pain stay at a natural level. If a character has a painless backstory, that might be okay. And if it’s riddled with pain… well, it’d better have a good reason.

What about you? Do you have broken characters? How have they coped? What broke them? Leave a comment and share!

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Monday, January 25, 2016

World Blip – Currency

How much money is in your wallet (or purse or pocket or wherever you keep some loose change or spending money)?
What sort of money is it? American dollars, perhaps, or maybe euros or pounds (heh, perhaps a two-pence because you have an opinion?), or maybe even a few Sen?

Money is an important part of our lives, is it not? We think of goods in terms of how many “dollars” or “shillings” or “shekels” they cost (if you think in terms of shekels, you are my new favorite person). Go back a thousand years and people thought more in terms of “my pig will buy x-bags of flour and x-dozen eggs at market”.

I don’t have time to give you a lesson on the economics of a barter system vs. a monetary system, but I think you get the basic idea.
Money is important.
And when it isn’t considered important, something else is.

Consider a story which takes place in another world. This world can have any form of technological advancement or magical difference from our world.
Any world at all; I’m serious. It can be a hard science fiction or soft science fantasy or a low fantasy or steampunk alternate history of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

How do people buy things in this world?
Hm. That’s interesting, ever thought about it? We go around buying things all the time and hand out bills or coins or checks or little plastic cards with hardly a thought, do we not?
Yet our story worlds rarely consider the idea of money, beyond the massive treasure store guarded by the fearsome dragon.

There’s something off about that, and I hope you can see it.
Quite simply, currency can be a five minute creation. Five minutes. Give me five minutes of your world-building time and I can help you create a quick, efficient, simple currency system for any world.

As a note before we begin: currency is one of those details in a world that needn’t be focused on. Your story will still work without a currency system. Unless the plot focuses on a moneychanger or merchant who deals in large sums of money, the only reason to have currency developed is to add a realistic sheen to your story.

Now: there are three basic steps you need to “follow” to create a decent currency set for any country:

1) Money or Barter?
A lot of stories set in medieval fantasies have excessive money systems when, in reality, most medieval countries would use a barter system. With the exception of the rich nobles and the late-medieval second class, people would trade what they had for what they needed. Eggs for flour, milk for nails, a sow for a plow, and so forth.
So. Decide: do the people in your world deal in money (such as coins or paper) or do they simply trade?
If there is a barter system rather than currency, you’re already done. Isn’t it great? Thirty seconds and your country’s economy has its foundation set.

2) What does the currency look like, and what is the exchange value?
      -Is the currency coins or paper bills or bits of shell? If it’s metal; gold or silver or bronze?
      -All currency has to be backed by someone. Coins aren’t just “worth” something because you want it to. A government has to decide “all right, puny peasants, this coin is worth this many of this coin, so deal with it”. If there is nothing to back the currency, it’s worth nothing. You can’t eat a piece of gold and it’s hard to wear a paper bill.
       -As a side note, consider a unique approach: what is rare in your story world? In a high-tech world, gold might not be that rare; it can be imported from some colony world with no problem. Gold becomes a common furnishing. So what takes its place? Perhaps the currency is backed by stockpiles of titanium or ununoctium.
And in a fantasy world? Think like a Native American and try sea shells as coins. It’s pretty interesting.

3) What buys what?
Once you have a system where “Big Coin” is worth four “Medium Coin” is worth four “Little Coin”, now it’s time to figure out what people measure “Big Coin” as relative to products they might buy.
If people decide two “Medium Coin” will buy a loaf of bread, then one “Big Coin” will buy how many loaves of bread?

Please tell me you said two.
Find some standard by which people measure the value of the currency. If two “Medium Coin” will buy a loaf of bread, it doesn’t make sense that only two “Big Coin” will buy a bolt of silk. Maybe fifty “Big Coin” will buy silk, and five hundred “Big Coin” will buy a common horse or cow.
It’s fairly simple; use common sense. A cow is worth more than a loaf of bread, and a jetpack is worth more than a computer.

And that’s it. Decide what the currency is, what it’s made of, what it is worth relative to other forms of currency, and how much currency buys a cow.

Of course, you can go further if you wish. It’s rare for two countries to share the same currency. Currency exchange is a tricky business, but it’s a real thing that needs to be dealt with.

A simple five-minute thought process about a few bits of gold can add a million peso’s worth of reality to your story.

What about you? Does your story world have a currency? If so, what is it like? Leave a comment and share!

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Friday, January 22, 2016

Backstory, Part 1 – Why You Need It

Let me tell you two little story beginnings:

A fifteen-year-old street thief runs away from his gang leader and boards a ship setting sail for an island far, far away. He’s running because his gang leader wanted him to kill. Again.
So the boy runs. He runs and runs and finds himself running to things far worse than what he’d fled from.

A twenty-nine-year-old noblewoman schemes just as much as the rest, but deep down she hates her position, a position her dead mother put her in. Then, when she’s kidnapped and held for ransom, she realizes how much that scheming had defined her. Perhaps the secrets she holds about her mother shaped her more than she thought.

Aren’t they wonderful little creatures?
They step into a story you’ve so carefully prepared for them and they- well, they tend to mess everything up and create disaster wherever they go, but in theory they’re supposed to create a lasting impression and emotionally-packed story.

But… what happens before the story? What do your characters do and think and act like? Where did their gain their skills, their fears, their dreams?
It’s an important aspect of storytelling; good stories don’t start at the beginning, but a beginning. They start up at a logical point and continue on. Good stories create a sense of continuity with the past. They pick up characters where they’re at and sweep them off on an adventure.
Because of the import of a character’s past (also known as backstory), I’ve concocted a four-part series on Backstory, in which I shall do a great deal of talking, in the hopes that you’ll learn something, I’ll learn something, and we can have at least a bit of discussion. We’ll see.

Backstory, to be concise, is life. 
Because concise is not always specific, let me be specific: backstory is the life your character lived before the “real” story begins. This can include where they were born, where they grew up, what their parents did for a living, your characters dreams and hopes and fears and failures and achievements. Backstory can be complex and lengthy, or it can be simple and short.

The big question I hope to answer today is thus: “Why do we need Backstory?”

A Proposition

The idea of backstory is not so “controversial” (I use this term loosely and void of real conflict) as the idea that worldbuilding is not only important but vital to your story. There are very, very few writers who would claim that backstory is unnecessary.

For those few of you who might be wondering why it is important, this post is for you. I am suggesting what many people already believe, plus a tad more (because if you’re going to argue in favor of one side of an argument, you may as well take a strong stance).
My proposition is thus: all strong characters have a strong backstory. In addition, a story where there is no backstory is a weak story.

And there it is. Simple enough, yes?
Let me divulge a bit more to clarify (again, conciseness is not always specific).

“Strong Backstory” makes “Strong Characters”

A strong backstory is not a detailed one, necessarily. Your character’s backstory can be very simple and summed up in no more than a paragraph or two, yet still be strong. In reverse, you can write a whole novel about a character’s backstory despite its obvious weaknesses and holes.

Strength does not come from length or in number (this is not military strategy). Strength is created by a few simple ideas:


Each backstory in your novel needs to be unique. Unless you story is about a bunch of clones and/or time-traveling doppelgängers, there is no such thing as two people living the exact same life. If all your characters have the same fear, the same social status, and the same childhood, the backstory is weak. In addition, backstory should be unique from those outside your novel.
If a cliché slips into the backstory, it’s not the end of the world. Clichés are cliché because they started out as a powerful storytelling device that became overused. So if your character is an orphan because the villain killed her parents, don’t sweat too much. Yes, it’s horribly clichéd and it immediately makes me think of half-a-dozen other stories. But that does not make the backstory weak. It simply makes it cliché. What you do with the cliché is what makes it weak or strong.
If you use the cliché to make your story powerful, then it’s not weak.

Nothing worthwhile happens in a tale without conflict. It’s not worth reading about if there is no conflict. It becomes like a textbook on herbs and the drying thereof. Not only will it smell like herbs, but it will be just as dry as said herbs.
Conflict takes all shapes and forms (not just violence, thank you) and is a key component in every story. It extends into the future (what sort of conflict is there after the story) and into the past (what sort of conflict is there before the story).
If nothing bad ever happens in the backstory, it’s a boring backstory. This is not to say you must have violence and vileness and darkness dripping through the backstory (that is often a sign of a weak backstory; a topic for another day), but it is to say that your character cannot lead a perfect life before their story begins.

Finally, reality plays an important role in the creation of a backstory. If the backstory is unrealistic, it’s hard to believe. If your character starts out as a poor beggar, yet has a college-level education, things get a bit suspicious. Unless you provide a reason for that education and the level of poverty your character experiences (think Crime and Punishment), the backstory will be weak, because it is unrealistic.

There is no “Story” without “Backstory”

This is the part of this post which may be considered the least “settling”. Few people will dispute the idea that backstory is important. They might, however, protest the vitality I suggest.

If there is no backstory, there is no story.
Sure, you have it all plotted out, and all written down, and all the characters take part, but you’re missing a key component if there is no backstory. A key component summed up in a simple question.


Why does your story happen?
Your wanting it to happen does not suffice in any version of this universe.
A story needs to be a consequence. It must stem from conflicts and emotions embedded deep in the past.
If there is no backstory, there can be no reason for the conflict that drives your story. That is the simplest way to put it. Backstory fuels the conflict, which fuels the story, which fuels emotion, which makes your novel good.

The Diversity of Backstory

I guess I just like that word, don’t I?
It’s a nice word, when used correctly.

Backstory has this tendency to hang out around characters and anywhere else it associates is often ignored. It is not, however, stuck in a tiny little clique I call the “Character Clique”. Backstory is a Roving Robert, so to speak. It skips around from clique to clique without caring much for social stigma.

It extends to all areas of story: character, plot (the conflict clique), and setting (the capstone clique). Everything in your story has to have a backstory.
The magical stones in your fantasy, the scientific evolution in your sci-fi, the relationships in your romance, the angst in your YA coming-of-age story (which I must inform you I do not condone as a genre in general), and the strange happenings of your contemporary psychological horror all require backstory.

As I’ve said, backstory is what happens before the novel begins. We often think of this exclusively as a character trait people have.
But your plot has a backstory. The events in your novel are the culmination (or should be) of months or years or decades of preceding conflict. Plots don’t pop into existence from nothing, much a good meal doesn’t pop into existence from nowhere.
Plots (and good meals) are woven into a masterpiece that has a beginning far before the story begins and an ending that might not even be reached fully by the end of the book (which is a topic for another time).
And setting. Setting is often the backstory of other things. It creates a backdrop from which the plot’s backstory emerges. It provides scenery for your characters as they grow into the people your reader first meet them as. But it needs a backstory, too. Your sci-fi world needs to come from somewhere. Your haunted house in your horror novel needs to come from somewhere.

All good stories have backstory.
But backstory isn’t just a stagnant and static creature hulking the background. It’s active and vibrant. It makes us wonder what around the corner, what our beloved characters are hiding.

Backstory provides a reason for that boy I mentioned earlier to run. It provides a reason for that woman to wish she’d never been put in the position to scheme, yet depend so much on that scheming.

It provides a foundation to build on.
Story needs a foundation.
Shall we explore that foundation further?

What do you think? How important is backstory to YOUR novel? Leave a comment and share!

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