Our characters feel pain.
They have memories and dark secrets. They carrying fears and dreams and past burdens and they yearn for reality.
Sometimes, when you develop a character’s backstory, you realize what you might not have noticed before: your character might be broken.
Their backstory may not be horrific, by any means, but it is breaking them. They feel lifeless, listless,
chartless, graphless, and you don’t know where to go from here.
Or maybe they’re broken in a different way. Maybe they still feel flat. What happens then? How do we inflate them into three-dimensional, fully-fleshed human beings [or insert your favorite non-human race here]?
Another result can come of this backstory development. They almost feel too developed. This is more rare, and is usually all your fault (well, 5% is mine, since you might have started to develop them because of me, but 95% is still your fault).
I want to look at these three possible outcomes of developing your character’s backstory, and offer possible solutions.
Delicate Porcelain Dolls
Some characters are just… fragile. They come into your head and poke around, then the second you try and develop them they fall into a weeping mess and you’re left wondering “what did I do wrong?”
These sorts of characters are broken. Not in the “I’ve had a horrible life” sort of broken, more like a record that keeps skipping your favorite part of the song and you just want to rip it apart because that’s the BEST PART OF THE SONG YOU LITTLE-
When this happens, there’s really only a few things you can do:
-Learn to deal with this. If your character falls apart and nothing makes sense anymore when you try to develop them, maybe it’s time to stop trying.
If they act relatively normal when not being developed and they are developed enough for the story to feel real and for them to feel developed through their character arc, let the weepy character lie next to the sleeping dog. It’s not worth it. So long as they sound real, that’s good enough.
-If they aren’t developed enough, then it’s time for drastic surgery. Give said character an anesthetic and cut open their head. Feel around for the squishy part of their brain that deals with not being developed and lobotomize it.
That is to say, change your character. Even if they often feel like entities that don’t belong to our consciousness, you need to admit this: they are part of your head. They are under your complete control, not matter how much you (and them) resist the fact.
Change them. Make it so they’re not weepy messes. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. It often changes their whole personality and story and reason for being in your novel, but it can fix the “I’m a stale character with no feelings” problem.
-If, however, changing them doesn’t help, then I have even more drastic news for you: find a new character. Characters that you can’t develop (because of a mental block on your part, mostly), then it’s time for them to go. If they’re vital to the plot, replace them with a completely different character. And if your story doesn’t need them… all the more reason for them to go.
These so-called “stubborn characters” are really just your brain being lazy. And if you can’t control your brain enough to break past that “stubborn character”, then it’s time to find a different character and start all over.
Two Dimensions are not greater than Three Dimensions
You’ve tried all the development stuff. Your character seems to respond well to it, and they have a full backstory and they’re complete and ready for the story.
Except… they don’t act like it. When you write them, they sound flat and stiff and boring. Your beta readers might complain about the character, say they’re not connecting.
What is this problem?!
This is the danger of a two-dimensional character. We call them “flat” more often than “two-dimensional”, but they’re the same thing when you think about it. These characters may have the appearance of being developed, but have one major flaw: that appearance is nothing more: an appearance.
Look at the development of this character. The most common cause of flat characters – excepting a lack of development – is that their backstory is full of clichés.
Sure, they have a full backstory. They’ve been painstakingly created and formed to be just the way they are. Except that the way they are has been use so many times by so many others that it’s no longer a creative development. They’re flat because we’ve seen them before.
What we’ve seen before is boring.
How do you fix a flat character?
Get out your surgical tools again. It’s time to carve out chunks of backstory and personality and recreate them. Try something new. Sure, it’s hard to find new and unique things. But here’s the deal: pick out your cliché – any cliché – and flip it on its head.
Give your character the exact opposite of a common cliché. It may still end up a cliché, but it will be less of a cliché than before.
And remember: it’s impossible to avoid every cliché ever. To try to avoid them would be to spend all your time worrying and no time writing.
Instead, avoid the ones you can, use the ones you can’t.
Is your character too developed?
This can be hard to spot, but here are a few possible symptoms:
-Long, useless lists containing things such as “favorite color” “how [character name] prefers there coffee” “which kind of dog [character name] hates” and so forth
-Long monologues (whether through dialogue or narrative) which detail long portions of the character’s life story from before the book.
-Other characters look flat and dull when compared to this character, even if they have been developed as well.
The first symptom is found mostly among people who… just don’t know how to develop the things that matter. Unless hatred of dogs or the preparation of coffee really matters to your story, these are useless facts to know. These don’t make up a person’s personality, goals, or dreams.
When you know someone really well, you know more than just their favorite color. You know what they want to be “when they grow up”, you know their passions and desires and you know their emotions. You understand them. This understanding rarely ever comes from a list of their favorite colors, foods, and the computer games they played when they were nine.
Secondly, monologues are a way to info-dump. Your character takes a moment to tell me, the reader, all sorts of information that really isn’t necessary. It’s a way to show off how much work was put into developing them.
An interesting fact: the reader doesn’t care. They don’t care about that one time when your character threw ice cream into the trash can instead of the candy wrapper.
We care about what is happening now. The story is what is important, not what’s in the past. Yes, we want the characters to have backstory. But never, ever at the cost of the real story.
Lastly, your character shines so brightly in their developed-ness that your other characters feel dull in comparison. This is a simple problem to fix; your two options are tone down the character or develop everyone else equally.
I suggest a bit of both.
Your character should shine, but not so brightly they blind your reader and the other characters. More like a sixty-watt lightbulb, rather than a 120-watt bulb.
It seems to me that I like to talk.
Especially for long periods of time on the same subject.
You know, with multiple-part blog post series involving as many aspects of a given subject as I can.
Well, this one is over.
Backstory is important, as I’ve said before.
But as a fair warning, I want to give you this bit of knowledge: never let character development take over the purpose of the story. Don’t become so wrapped up in developing your character that you forget their original purpose. At some point, you have to say “good enough” and just start writing. That point is relative to each character, and to each author. You need learn where you need to just stop and begin writing the story.
The story is always the most important part.
What do you think? Do you have any over-developed characters? Flat characters? Broken characters? How have you fixed them in the past? Leave a comment and share!
Philophobia: Romance is like the monster in the closet (D. V. Mayfair)