Friday, July 10, 2009

Emily learns her lesson

Backstory can be so damn boring to work on. It's all stuff that never makes it into the script and it's so mundane. What would your character have for breakfast? What are they most afraid of? Why are they all sad and stuff? It's work and it sucks. I just want to make explosions in my head; I don't want to ponder whether my protagonist prefers pen or pencil.

I keep pretending just sort of skimming over those details is enough. It's not enough.

Some time ago, a friend looked over my zombie script and asked me to write a crapload of character backstory to figure out what to do next. I immediately got a new understanding of my character and made the script stronger because I understood the motivation behind each action.

So flash forward to a few months ago when I began working on the script I am calling Burn Side. What do I do? I sort of skim over the character bio and focus strictly on plot.

Oh, Emily. When will you learn?

I've been spending too much time getting angry at stupid people on a couple of message boards lately and have been avoiding the screenplay so I quit posting to message boards, both for my sanity and for my productivity. So at the first sign of boredom I no longer went to a message board, I went to my script.

Only problem is, I didn't want to work on my script. I still don't feel happy about what's going on with that thing right now, and all the pep talks in the world have not made the plot work any better.

So to avoid having to work on the script I said, okay, why don't I use this time to write character bio? But instead of getting out some list of characteristics (it's haaaaaaaard!) I just sort of started rambling about this girl's childhood and why she acts the way she does and whatnot.

And then I was like Oh.

My character feels all angry and stuff because she was brought up to think women are weak and the only way to be strong is to be more like a man. And what's more manly than being a soldier? Her older brother is a soldier. And then I was all hey that's got all kinds of potential. My male lead also always wanted to be something society wouldn't let him be. So that's why they like each other.

And then it all came together and now I know what I have to do.

So note to Future Self, stop being a dumbass. All this plotting and index carding is super, but if you don't take the time to build your backstory it will take you longer to write your script.

I know this, and yet I keep thinking I can get away without it. Because I am a dummy.


  1. I'd have to say I agree. People will remember your characters long after they forget why X kidnapped Y.

    I always give them a job, a type of apartment, some type of relationship, etc.

    You can actually get a lot just from the name. You can determine nationality (Danny O Herlihan), social status (Branford Worthington), even location (Tex Draper).

    I guess if you do a "regular life opening" you can show the person actually open the fridge.

    Or show their wet bar, or family pictures.

    The plot can really boil down to how these personalities react to tension and conflict.

    The cool thing is that you're making it up, but the bad thing is that you have to make it up.

  2. To me it's more about figuring out what the motivation is. I already know the plot, I know what they're doing, but when you add a really clear backstory the motivation drives the plot, not the other way around.

  3. My characters invent their own backstory.

    It takes FOREVER.

  4. Back story isn't why the person is but who the person is. What I mean is that you don't have to go into depth because all characters are archetypal versions of said personality.

    Is it funnier to hear a person make sarcastic remarks or the story about why?

    I guess it also depends on what personality trait your trying to embellish on also - fear of heights, distrust of men, dislike of the government, etc.

    The key I believe is always the brevity of information. Actors talk so giving them a quick line allows them to find the emotion according to the character.

    Motivation is always secondary because every story is "caused" by the antagonist. They cause the inciting incident; they force the protag to react.

    Comparisons and contrasts of goals can produce the back story: the villain learned about bank security to rob because of his father and the hero learned bank security to protect because of his father.

    Then little anecdotes or pearls of wisdom can make up the hero's back story.

    Now don't feel that I'm disagreeing. I realize the importance of grounding in a character (had a childhood, went to the prom, was stood up as a prank) but it's really hard to incorporate back story - at least as it's usually defined.

  5. If that's what works for you. I don't look at it that way, though. I think finding out what brought your character here and what life experiences they've had up to this moment can make their reactions stronger.

    And I don't think a story is always the antagonist. I tend to write stories that are caused by a protagonist's desire, so it's all the more important to know why they do the things they do.

    Either way, I've found that writing up a long explanation of who this person was before the story started - which is basically what backstory is - helps when I go to figure out what they'll do in a given situation and prevents them from being cliche.

    I don't enjoy doing it so I put it off, but when I finally get around to it, the story is always - ALWAYS - stronger for it.

    The backstory isn't something you put on the page. It's something you know in your mind as you write what's on the page.

  6. Hey, it's all about "not writing in a vacuum," not about people adopting each other's methods.

    But when you're talking genre that's when the difference is the protagonist's goals.

    Take for example the Teacher in your latest story. With a job like that the antagonist almost HAS TO initiate the action - unless the teacher is a National Guardsmen or something.

    Or maybe he does Neighborhood watch, but even then the antag has to do something to get the hero involved.

    There was an interesting thread on Word Play about crafting the hero vs villain. It means you only need one side of the coin. I find it best to create an "unstoppable" antag which means your hero has to be even more "unstoppable" - not immovable because she has to be proactive.

    The better the bad guy the better the action.

  7. But you can't just invent a great antagonist and let your protagonist be a cliche. You need invent backstory for everybody. The more you know your characters, the more they can react to events around them in a believable but new way.

  8. I don't know why I'm Chatty McCommentington all of a sudden, but I have to jump in here as well:

    My last screenplay (that is, audioplay) was extremely pleasant to write exactly because I had figured out my characters for the first time. I wrote the 160-page screenplay from a 18-page single-spaced outline which included everyone's motivation, second thoughts etc. It is extremely painful to read from being so on the nose, but it was sooo useful. And it didn't constrict me either; if the conversation moved in a different direction than I'd anticipated or I had an idea for a better bit of action, it was very easy to tweak it as well without getting off the rails.

    Actually, the one part I had trouble with was my sort-of antagonist because I neglected to get into his side of the story enough.

    Oh, I and I cannot heap enough praise on David Gerrold for suggesting "interviewing" your main characters--although I don't think it's his idea. My protagonist completely found her voice in a few pages. (And I could even use that interview in casting without ruining any of the scenes for my by hearing them too often.)


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