Building Characters the Hard Way
by Roger Johns
Before I turned to mystery writing, I spent nearly twenty years teaching in collegiate schools of business. During those years, I had literally thousands of career-oriented conversations with my students. In the beginning, I often asked them “So, what do you want to be?” Eventually, I realized that question focused on academic ambitions to the exclusion of other legitimate considerations, so I began asking, instead, “Who do you want to be?”
This question provoked a lot of thoughtful and very interesting responses. Intuitively, the students grasped that their fortunes as a something would hinge greatly on their fortunes as a someone. We were all aware of the stories about one professional or another whose life became chaotic and miserable because their character, or lack thereof, made them unsuited to the demands of their job. And we were also aware of the people who seemed to effortlessly withstand the rigors imposed by their chosen path.
The message in the question and the lesson of experience was easy to grasp: Who you are matters.
After I retired from the academy and took up mystery writing, I was several years and a lot of false starts down the road with my stubbornly unfinishable first novel before I realized that, as a writer, I had been ignoring the focus on who that, as a teacher, I had so relentlessly tried to cultivate in my students. It was a humbling moment. As a writer of plot-driven fiction, I had unconsciously decided that plot was everything and my characters deserved only second-class status.
Consequently, my characters were mere plot devices––hand-waving, dialogue-spouting, paper cutouts tricked up with collections of traits, and quirks, and occupations. But they were lifeless, and they were not up to the task of carrying the plot. The light went on when I eventually remembered those long-ago “Who do you want to be?” conversations.
Lesson learned: As it is with actual people, so it must be with fictional people––who they are matters.
Even after this evolution in my thinking, and despite all the writing classes, how-to books, and many hours spent with critique groups––all of which moved me closer to where I needed to be––I still struggled. Even though I spent a great deal of time and effort constructing what appeared to be complete characters with integrated, functioning personalities, the characters and the story didn’t play well together. The problem, as I ultimately discovered, was that I was creating the characters and the story more or less independently of each other. And once a character was created, it became impossible to see her or him as anyone other than the person I had already meticulously assembled and described in my character write-up. If the story didn’t call for that character, things tended to grind to a halt.
Eventually, the insights that all the classes and books and critique partners had been building toward finally hit me: (1) fictional people are built the same way actual people build themselves—one experience at a time, and (2) the authenticity of a character’s action in the present is determined by how that character was shaped by experiences in their past.
Lesson learned: Instead of populating my story with prefabricated characters, I would let the demands of the story call their personalities into being.
Things began to work much better at that point. Whenever a major character needed to act in a particular way, I created a corresponding experience in the character’s backstory––something that would make that action in the story’s present seem credible and authentic. Every important present action was paired with a character-shaping past experience. Eventually, I accumulated a critical mass of backstory and the characters’ personalities ignited and were strong enough to undergird an entire story’s worth of action. At that point, the characters were able to authentically carry the narrative forward.
Building as you go, however, is neither fast nor easy. It requires delving into the psychology of your characters and finding new and inventive ways to portray their past. You will have to get to know them as if they were real people.
And, as it is with so many things in life, the solution to one problem can also be the foundation for another. And such was the case here. With so much backstory, the problem became when, how, and whether to reveal it––how to keep the character’s action authentic-feeling without disrupting the momentum of the story.
The answer to this problem is, simultaneously, simple but not so simple. It turns out that backstory can be revealed in any amount and at any time, as long as you are careful to make sure that it serves the story but doesn’t become the story. This, I learned from reading a lot of books, by paying very close attention to what worked and what didn’t, and from the many mistakes I made as I dragged my own characters into existence. Here are some examples.
ACTION NOW, BACKSTORY NOW
Revealing the backstory as the action unfolds can be tricky because unloading the past as the character acts or experiences an emotion can easily sabotage the flow of the narrative. However, if done correctly, this process can produce a fully-fledged character very quickly, and pull the reader deep into the story.
In the first six pages of her debut novel, The Black Hour, Lori Rader-Day delivers a master class in action-now-backstory-now. Amelia, the character who emerges from those pages is so clear and her story so compelling, that putting the book down becomes impossible.
We see a physically damaged woman who cycles through panic, pain, dread, embarrassment, joy, irritation, anger, defiance, despair, determination, a fleeting sense of accomplishment, and ultimately fear––all within the confines of a short walk from her car, into a nearby building, up a daunting flight of stairs, and then along a hallway.
As Amelia makes this short journey, the author ties each of her physical actions and emotional responses to a bit of backstory. Cleverly, as the character moves forward in time, the snippets of backstory move backward in time. And as the character propels her hurting body along its excruciating journey up the staircase, the author reveals the backstory by going further and further down the memory hole.
From the outset, the reader is left to wonder at the source of Amelia’s physical pain and her seemingly endless pageant of emotions. Each short description of action and its corresponding physical or emotional response is paired with a brief but perfectly calibrated piece of Amelia’s history, and each pairing works as a self-contained mini-drama all its own.
The effect is mesmerizing, and by the time the seven-word revelation of the source of Amelia’s troubles is given at the opening of the second chapter, readers will feel as if Amelia is someone they’ve known forever.
It seems that the secret to success, here, was in keeping the action-backstory pairs short and perfectly matched, having the character experience a multitude of emotional responses in a very short period of time, and withholding the critical piece of backstory––the piece that explains Amelia’s seemingly bewildering blizzard of emotions––until the end of the sequence.
ACTION NOW, BACKSTORY MUCH LATER
Sometimes a character’s actions and the revelation of the critical piece of backstory that supports it can be at opposite ends of the book. Such is the case with the All the Missing Girls, by Megan Miranda. The reader learns early on that Nic Farrell, the main character, has made a puzzling decision before the book even began––a decision that ended a once promising career and spun her life into a lower, harder, and mystifying orbit. The reader, along with other characters in the book, wonders why she has done this. The critical piece of backstory that makes this decision make sense is not revealed until near the end of the book. That’s a long time to keep a reader in suspense, but Ms. Miranda pulls it off perfectly.
At every turn, Nic is portrayed as likeable, self-sacrificing, a bit tragic-seeming, and a little haunted. As an underdog trying to begin life anew, we root for her. But forces from her old life begin to intrude and we resent that. Nevertheless, she persists in trying to make the best of her new life. Then new forces rise against her and we resent that too.
From beginning to end, Nic is portrayed as a very sympathetic character, someone who is easy to care about and bond with and, most importantly, someone whose struggle looks familiar enough that we feel the need to know her, and are willing to stick with her until we discover what it is that caused her to make the decision that so dramatically altered her life.
As the story progresses, Nic’s backstory begins to invade her present in the form of someone she used to know or thought she knew. This continually reminds the reader that one of the main impediments to Nic’s new life is her old life. Every new revelation from the past serves to increase the tension she is feeling in the present. We experience with her that paralyzing fear that comes from being suddenly reminded of something bad we’d rather forget, or the dread that rises when old events seen in a new light reveal some unsettling truth.
While there are surely many ways to bridge a book-length gap between a character’s action and the justifying piece of her backstory, I found this one very compelling. The character was easy to strongly identify with, and other elements of backstory were added in a way that aggravated the character’s present troubles while building toward the critical revelation at the end.
BACKSTORY AS MISDIRECTION
Sometimes, backstory can serve double duty. It can justify a character’s present actions while it accomplishes some other story objective at the same time. In
Dark River Rising, my debut mystery, I needed a credible way for Wallace Hartman, my police detective main character, to miss the fact that she was being followed. This was going to be difficult because up until this point the reader had seen her as someone with exceptionally high situational awareness. So I had her fall under the spell of a long-ago memory. A drive through a neighborhood filled with personal history triggers a recollection from her childhood when her two brothers played a mean-ish trick on her. Wallace is in such complete thrall to the memory that she fails to notice something she ordinarily would have. The memory is brief but it’s the kind of transporting reminiscence that we all experience from time to time, and because it involves Wallace being the victim of a prank, the memory evokes sympathy and the reader feels what Wallace feels. The reason for this bit of backstory is revealed when the reader is made aware of the follower but Wallace is not.
This double-duty use of backstory worked because both Wallace and the reader experienced the misdirection. It also makes use of the fact that all adults were, at one time, children, and childhood is an endlessly fascinating time of life. And, for better or for worse it was, for most of us, the period that had the greatest impact on who we have become. Consequently, it can also be the richest source of material out of which to construct a character.
There are, undoubtedly, many other creative ways to present backstory that work just as well as the ones explored above, and you will surely find them, either in your own writing or that of others. But, as with any creative endeavor, there is a bit of art to go along with the science. Trial and error is inevitable and must be embraced. And not all of a character’s backstory needs to be revealed. But a character’s response to a challenge of any significance will eventually have to be justified by something from the past. Otherwise, the reader will be baffled as to why the character acted as she or he did. Why does one character, faced with a home invader, calmly aim and fire at the invader while another character cowers or flees or calls 9-1-1? The reader will want to know.
As an academic, I developed the capacity to go on forever about, literally, anything––fictional character creation, included. So, if you’re inclined to share your thoughts and experiences on this topic, I would love to continue the conversation. Please write and let me know about your journey to discovering the characters that propel your fiction.
Roger Johns is the author of the Wallace Hartman Mysteries—Dark River Rising (2017) and River of Secrets (2018)—from St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books. Please visit him at www.rogerjohnsbooks.com, and email him here.
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