Monday, February 16, 2009

All About the Backstory ...

My brother and I have a long-standing discussion about nature vs. nurture. He's very much a nature person -- he believes that people are pretty much born as who they will become. Their character is in place already, and all that's left to discover is the way it will manifest itself. Will a naturally rebellious person end up reinventing modern society with some invention, or end up in jail? 

Having kids, I can say that my kids have changed surprisingly little since they were babies. My oldest has learned how to deal with the parts of his personality he's never liked, but it's all still in there. 

For me, though, I think the balance is somewhat more even between nature and nurture. Sure, a person might be born rebellious, but the trick is in teaching them how to direct that energy. It's like a jet engine. Once you fire that puppy, it's going to start generating heat and energy, but until you strap it onto a plane and point it somewhere, you won't get anywhere.

So it goes with my characters. I need to know where they have been and what they've done, and through this process, I learn more about who they are. Incidentally, this figures into my outlining process ... Ideally, the characters' histories are what drives the story forward, and as they are revealed as the people they are, we discover a hidden world of meaning in everything that went before.


Mark Terry said...

I would also suggest that the writer does and SHOULD know a lot more about the character than what ends up on the page. It may come out later if you're lucky enough to write multiple books about the character, but it can add a consistency and depth to your characterizations.

Erica Orloff said...

Great post. Each of my kids seems to follow a trajectory of their own choosing, and all I seem to do is steer them a little to the left, a little to the right, and so on.

With my characters, they seem to almost willfully steer their own stories. And, like Mark said, much of what I know about them never really ends up on the page . . . just the hints and residue of their hurts and angst and what drives them.


Erica Orloff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LurkerMonkey said...


Agreed. I'm rereading the HP books now, and it's interesting to me to see how Rowling depicted Dumbledore, knowing he was gay herself. At one point in the first book, he appears wearing a woman's hat, and I chuckled to myself.

LurkerMonkey said...


I've been doing something new this time ... as I'm doing the outlining work, I'm writing more about the characters and their histories than about the plot, then I'm ruminating for a while to see what happens. It's actually going really slow, because this is a big story with many, many characters. I keep reminding myself that I only need to show a tiny bit in the first book ...

As far as kids, I sometimes compare it to rolling a boulder down a hill. The boulder will roll no matter what, but you can aim it somewhat.

L.C. Gant said...

I can really relate to this post, especially with Erica's comments. I feel that my writing has become much better since I became a parent because of all the similarities between the two worlds.

My son is only 18 months old, but he'll often make a certain face and I'll say, "Yep, that's your daddy." Or, he'll stomp his foot with a little attitude and I'll think, "Uh-oh, he's got my stubbornness."

I find that it works best if my husband and I help him to be who he naturally is already. For example, he's very mellow, so we don't force him to mingle with kids right away; we just let him warm up to them. And so it is with my writing. I'm learning to embrace the natural tendencies of my characters, to guide them in the direction they already want to go.

LurkerMonkey said...


I know it's a cliche, but for me, it also happens to be true: I learned more from being a parent -- about everything -- than any other experience in my life. Which, of course, includes an education in my most annoying qualities, since one of my sons seems to have inherited most of them. :)