Tuesday, February 25, 2014

More Is Not Better - Adding Backstory to Create GMC

We are all told to give the characters in our stories something that they are struggling with on the inside that will hopefully come into conflict with the bigger story arc of the entire book. We often discuss these in terms of the standard model of Goal, Motivation and Conflict. More often than not, this idea is probably inserted into your story as a critique partner is reading over your partial and asks a simple question such as "Why is the hero doing this?" or "I really don't know why the heroine would want to start up this relationship with this guy?"

Knowing this information is very important! I had a director that I worked with in a local production that got on our case all of the time about moving around on the stage. You simply didn't need to move during the scenes if there was no reason. We had to have a legitimate reason to do so, and yes, the same goes for your characters.

A common flaw I see in writers, however, is the obsession of adding far too many of these reasons in for the characters. Before long, this character has become a counselor's dream client knowing he will be able to retire just with the income of dealing with all of the character's problems. In other words, not good.

I do think part of the reason authors do this is because they aren't thinking of the story in a global context. They are simply seeing the story as these individual scenes, so when it comes to a time to add motivation, the author is thinking of the single scene, and not the unity of the entire story. I also believe there are authors out there who believe adding each of these will allow multiple audiences to appreciate the story and tap into something they can relate to.

In either case, it becomes a distraction, and even more so in the case of a romance.

I have rejected so many stories for this reason! In simple terms, the characters have so many other issues to worry about, thinking of a budding romance is the furthest from their minds. The distraction from all of these problems will prevent any logical thought of seeing the other character in any romantic light. At the same time, I am betting the other character will run screaming as he or she sees all of the personal problems the other character has. Look, we have all seen this before. How long did you like to hang out with someone who only saw things in a negative light. You know the type of person!

Let me give you an example of something I see far too often in a Regency romance. The hero, who we are supposed to be cheering for and wanting to get hooked up with the heroine is dealing with:

  • A war injury, most likely a leg because we thought Patrick Swayze in North and South was hot with that limp.
  • He has PTSD and frequently wakes screaming with nightmares
  • The PTSD results in cases of E.D. every now and then and thinks he is not a "man" anymore
  • His family is losing money due to a cousin who is spending the family's money.
  • The heroine's dad has a hatred of people with blonde hair which he happens to have.
But he loves her...

But wait, there's more. The heroine:

  • Was abused as a teenager.
  • Is protecting a sister from unwanted advances from the "Skank in the Ton" (sounds like a great title)
  • Mom has migraines and does the Laudanum/Hops personal medical treatment.
  • And she is a shy virgin!!!!!
But she loves him...

And now we are going to add in the central story arc??? Really????

I say this over and over again here. KEEP IT SIMPLE! Pick one issue (I might give you two if I am feeling generous that day). Have them work through it. You might find the story flows better!


  1. You've explained this very well, with excellent examples. I understand not wanting to add too many issues or baggage, but how is the opposite avoided? How then does one create a character that doesn't seem too perfect, that is approachable and relevant?

  2. A lot of Method people would like to burn True and False by David Mamet, but I always like this bit from the book:

    "You have a character in the script say, 'I've been in Germany for some years.' Exactly how many years would that be?" It seems a legitimate question, and, indeed, it is. It is a legitimate desire to know how to play the scene. But the legitimate answer is: "I can't help you."

    First, the playwright does not know "how many years". The play is a fantasy, it is not a history. The playwright is not withholding information, he is supplying all the information he knows, which is to say all the information that is germane. "The character" did not spend any time at all in Germany. He never was in Germany. There is no character, there are just black marks on a white page - it is a line of dialogue.