(IMPORTANT NOTE: I will be differentiating character, as in a person, and character, as in aspects of a person, by capitalizing the former and leaving the latter lowercase. So from here on out in this post, Character refers to people, and character refers to qualities of a Character.)
Happy New Year, everyone! I thought I’d start off the New Year with an informative post about something I see a bit too much in fiction: writers mistaking a backstory for character.
In particular, I saw this quite a bit in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which I saw in theaters, and Star Trek Beyond, which I saw on DVD recently (and since not everyone has seen those movies yet but might want to, I’ll keep this spoiler free). Both movies introduce new Characters with really sad backstories: Jyn Urso in Rogue One and Jaylah in Star Trek Beyond. However, these Characters’ films don’t spend a lot of time establishing their characters beyond being exceptionally good warriors and survivors. The most we learn about them is their backstories.
Now, a backstory is important. It tells us where a Character comes from, and can imform certain aspects of their character. However, backstory isn’t the same thing as character. A Character’s character is personality and how Characters react to situations.It’s their interests, their pet peeves, what they look for in friends or romantic partners, and how they change over the course of a story. That’s what authors and critics talk about when they speak of character development and character arcs and character in general.
For example, in one of my novels-in-progress, Laura Horn, the titular character also has a dark backstory. A very traumatic event occurred in her life when she was a kid, and that informs how she interacts with the world around her quite a bit. However, that’s not all there is to her. Laura likes animated movies and musicals, and uses them to de-stress. And even before the dark incident in her life, she was introverted and shy. She didn’t like to put herself out there, and preferred quiet to excitement. And, when it comes to the people around her, once they show her how much they care for her and how kind they are, she will become fiercely loyal and go to great lengths to protect them. That’s character in a Character.
An even better example is the titular character of the TV series Chuck, and its titular character Chuck Bartowski. From pretty early on in the series, we’re told Chuck’s backstory (and this series ended five years ago, so I will go into details). His parents weren’t always around in his life, so he was raised mostly by his older sister. He went to Stanford but his best friend betrayed him, framed him for cheating, and slept with his girlfriend. He was expelled, and moved home, where he started working at a Best Buy parody. But that is not Chuck’s character:
Chuck is a smart guy. He’s an accomplished engineer and programmer, and his smarts often help him in his crazy, espionage-filled life. Chuck enjoys science fiction and other nerdy interests, and will go on for hours with his best friend Morgan. He’s kind and caring, and tries to be optimistic despite how awful life can be sometimes to him, though occasionally he is seized by despair when things go terribly wrong. And although he hates guns and violence, he will go to whatever length necessary to protect his friends and family from trouble. And he tries to be the straight guy in a world where weird stuff is treated normal in his daily life (if you know the show and where Chuck works, you know what I’m talking about). That is Chuck’s character.
And when you have good character, you have a good Character. Chuck is still a much-beloved Character because people identify with him. Even though fans may not share his backstory (I certainly haven’t been expelled because of a friend’s betrayal or had to deal with absent parents), they love that a nerdy guy who tries to be nice to even nasty people and who enjoys all the nerdy things they love is the hero of a TV series, because that’s someone like them.
So how do you know if a Character has a character? Here’s an exercise I came up with before the New Year: pretend the Character is question (I’ll make one up for the sake of the exercise) is someone you know in your daily life, and you meet someone whom you would like to set up with the Character on a blind date. Now, I wouldn’t tell this girl my Character’s backstory, because it would sound something like this:
“Edward was orphaned at a young age. He was nearly killed by soldiers working for a rogue element of the Armed Forces, but the Queen of Hell saved his life and gave him powers because she felt that doing so would work into her plans. He uses his powers to go after the secret group, as well as anyone, human or otherwise, who stands in his way or tries to hurt those close to him.”
If I told someone that, they’d either think I was kidding or insane, or they would run screaming to the nearest convent in the hopes that a nun’s habit would protect them from evil. However, if I were to describe my Character’s character, I’d probably get a much better reception:
“Edward’s a smart dude. He’s always had the best scores in school, he’s been captain of the chess team for three years running. Also pretty rational, proved that our high school wasn’t haunted when everyone else thought it was. He’s also very loyal and caring. He’s practically raised his sister since they were kids, and I’ve never seen him raise his voice or break a promise. And he tells pretty funny jokes, lots of situational humor. He’s very political, but if you tell him you don’t want to discuss spending on defense or reelection rates in Congress, and he’ll keep quiet.”
Now there’s a Character with character, someone you’d like to date. And this exercise works in all sorts of situations. You can even use it to come up with character traits for your Character and work them into the story.
Backstory is important. No doubt about it. But it’s not everything to a Character. Their character is. Because without it, there’s nothing to identify with, and it makes it harder for readers to continue reading your story. And nobody wants that.