Showing posts with label backstory. Show all posts
Showing posts with label backstory. Show all posts

Borrowing from the Superheroes

My husband—sweetie that he is—brought me a copy of The Smithsonian from his dermatologist's office. So thanks to Lance and Dr. Mantel, I am now a diehard fan of the magazine.

One of the articles was inspired by the new movie, Man of Steel. They take up how "superhero origin stories inspire us to cope with adversity."

The elements that make superheroes so popular can work with characters in any kind of fiction you may write (or read). Here are the ones that Smithsonian writer Robin Rosenberg found in several of the most popular superhero tales. Check your stories and novels to see how these themes (or "life-altering experiences") might be capitalized on to further pique the interest of your readers.

~Destiny—is your character "chosen" in some way?
~Trauma—has your character suffered trauma that increased his strengths or weaknesses?
~Sheer chance—Sheer chance is usually not as compelling as an action that has been caused or motivated, but sometimes a writer just has to resort to it. If an author makes that choice, he or she should put more emphasis on how the character deals with it.
~Choosing "altruism over the pursuit of wealth and power."
My own takeaway from Rosenberg’s piece is that literary criticism of the last decade has relegated backstory in novels as pretty undesirable, something that should be minimized at all costs. In my gut, I've always disagreed. Of course, we can't let backstory get in the way of momentum, but backstory is often part of your hero’s path to character building so they very well may deserve more attention.  I’m also reading Wally Lamb’s new novel and I’m pretty sure from the evidence that he agrees with me—at least in regard to literary fiction.

Backstory helps your readers relate and find meaning in loss, and it provides models for coping. If you are a write of nonfiction, you may find ways to use superheroes' themes anecdotally in your work.

In either case, understanding the psychological underpinnings of why we are so affected may benefit us all by "tapping into our capacity for empathy, one of the greatest [super?] powers of all."

There’s one more that Rosenberg missed. I think we're all searching for connection—human to human. If that happens to be human-to-alien or human-to-superhero, so be it. It's part of what we all need as readers.

Note: Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist, has written several books about the psychology of superheroes. Search for her on Google.
Carolyn Howard-Johnson, author of This Is the Place; Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered; Tracings, a chapbook of poetry; and how to books for writers including the award-winning second edition of, The Frugal Book Promoter: How to get nearly free publicity on your own or by partnering with your publisher; The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success; and Great Little Last Minute Editing Tips for Writers . The Great First Impression Book Proposal is her newest booklet for writers. She has three FRUGAL books for retailers including A Retailer’s Guide to Frugal In-Store Promotions: How To Increase Profits and Spit in the Eyes of Economic Downturns with Thrifty Events and Sales Techniques. Some of her other blogs are, a blog where authors can recycle their favorite reviews. She also blogs at all things editing, grammar, formatting and more at The Frugal, Smart and Tuned-In Editor .

Protagonist’s Backstory PLANNING YOUR NEXT STORY: PART 6

Protagonist’s Backstory   PLANNING YOUR NEXT STORY: PART 6

Other discussions in this series include:

Today we will discuss something related to getting to know your protag and that is learning from them about their background, backstory. We all have one. If you’re alive and have lived at all, even for a minute or two, you have a backstory.

So how do you learn about your protagonist’s? You ask him/her through an interview. Devise a series of questions you might ask anyone you know (real person) or want to know about. Then verbally ask those questions to an empty chair. Although that chair won’t really be empty, because your protag will be sitting there, answering or refusing to answer, your questions. If they refuse, find a way around the question to seek the same answer.

Since you completed a character worksheet last month, you already know the basic stats about your character: hair color, style, length, eye color, etc. What you seek now is more in-depth about their childhood, their parents, siblings, schooling, tauntings or bullyings, special events from their past which helped make them who they are.

Don’t forget to ask WHY or HOW. Ask about any unresolved issues from their past and how they might complicate matters now. What are some catalysts that marked their life? How did they respond/change?

Here are a few questions to include in your interview:

What do people like/dislike about you?

What do YOU like/dislike about yourself?

What are your beliefs? Secrets?

What are your personal demons? Why? What have you done about them?

Are you optimistic or pessimistic? Why? How does this affect your life?

How confident are you?

What is your level of morality?

What would you change about yourself if you could? What’s stopping you?

Do you like your name? 

Who is the most important person in your life? Why?

What would you do if something bad happened to them?

Who were your friends growing up? Now?

Who were your enemies then? Now?

Learn all there is to know about their parents/guardians. I discovered an entirely new side to my story while discussing Rayna’s parents with her. Suddenly the woman who turned her over to the Peacers had a motive and the bully in the Gestortium’s motive matched giving me bookends. Readers LOVE bookends in stories. I’ll talk more about them at a later date. But by learning about Rayna’s mother’s backstory, I discovered she also had a bully growing up (the one who turned in Rayna) and the two bullies’s motivations are the same: now and then for Rayna and her Mum. Without learning about her Mum, I would never have seen that parallel.

Ask about siblings, dead or alive. You’d be surprised how many protags have experienced deaths they don’t like to discuss, but which had an impact on them. Ask about cousins, aunts & uncles, grandparents, neighbors, playmates (again-this became instrumental in my later bully motivation), etc.

Don’t forget to think about all of the characters revolving around your protag. You DO NOT need such in-depth interviews for all of them, but any who play a major role in the story need to be interviewed—if only to get to know them better and not use any of their background in the actual story.

Next month,

Thanks to K.M. Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel

Rebecca Ryals Russell, a fourth-generation Floridian, was born in Gainesville, grew up in Ft Lauderdale then lived in Orlando and Jacksonville with her Irish husband and four children. Due to the sudden death of Rebecca's mother, they moved to Wellborn, near Lake City, to care for her father, moving into his Victorian home built in 1909. After teaching Middle Graders for fourteen years she retired and began writing the story idea which had been brewing for thirty years.  Within six months she wrote the first three books of each series, YA Seraphym Wars and MG Stardust Warriors. The world she created has generated numerous other story ideas including two current works in progress, SageBorn Chronicles based on various mythologies of the world and aimed at the lower Middle Grade reader and Saving Innocence, another MG series set on Dracwald and involving dragons and Majikals. She is finishing a YA Dystopian Romance which has been a NaNoWriMo project for three years. She loves reading YA Fantasy, Horror and Sci Fi as well as watching movies.  Read more about Rebecca and her WIPs as well as how to buy books in her various series at  You may email her at

How to Handle Flashbacks

Once the reader’s interest is caught, after the storyline is firmly established, the reader may want to know that past history that brought the character to where he is today. If a girl’s going to slap a boy’s face, then he in turn knocks her down, let the reader see that first before you explain the background of their quarrel.

1. Recollection. The character goes briefly into a memory within a couple of sentences or a paragraph.

2. True Flashback—A trigger—a song, a smell, something reminds the character of something or someone and sends him/her back into the past. Then trigger the character back into the present (the song ends, someone asks a question, etc.)

3. Introspection. Be VERY CAREFUL. It should be exceptionally quirky or an exceptional reason to write this way. Make introspection a small percentage of the novel.

4. Summary. A way to introduce back story. Example: The Book of Ruth, Jane Hamilton, gives a tour of the town, giving little tidbits of info about places & people.

5. Prologue. A haunting incident or piece of info that continues through the story.

6. Dialogue. You can explain past action in a short discussion. Again, don’t start the story with it. See if you can figure out a way to show the event itself, instead of having people talk about it.

7. Memory. You can use an inner monologue to take a short trip down memory lane. Example, from Ann Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist: Just when the reader is fed up with Macon’s bad-tempered dog Edward, Tyler lets us know why Macon insists on keeping the dog. The dog had belonged to his son Ethan, who had been murdered the previous year. “Once upon a time, Ethan had brushed him, bathed him, wrestled on the floor with him, and when Edward stopped to paw at one ear, Ethan would ask, with the soberest courtesy, ‘Oh, may I scratch that for you?’ The two of them watched daily at the window for the afternoon paper, and the instant it arrived, Ethan sent Edward bounding out to fetch it—hind legs meeting front legs, heels kicking up joyfully.”

8. Frames. Only two flashbacks, one at the beginning and one at the end. For example, an older person introduces the story, then we leave her and go directly into the main story—that of the 20-year-old. Then you end with the older person again. It’s kind of a prologue and epilogue form.

To Think About:
• Look at your flashbacks.
• How often are you interrupting the forward flow of your story?
• Do you have flashback at more than one level—flashbacks from flashbacks?
• If you spend a lot of time in the past, take a look at each flashback individually. If it were cut, would the present story be harder to follow? Or, can you rewrite it into a more present, or real-time scene?

Do You Use Flashbacks?

What is flashback? It’s someone remembering, in the present, what happened in the past. If you tell of bygone events in narrative summary, it’s exposition (telling). If you dramatize them as a scene, it’s a flashback. The virtue of flashbacks is that, unlike exposition, they’re showing, not telling. They have action and drama.

However, many writing experts advise not to use flashbacks, or to limit them Of course this is one of those “rules” that has exceptions. In writing, never say never.

Here are the reasons for trying to avoid using flashbacks:
1.They’re not as strong or vivid as present-time scenes, simply because they’re done with. Readers tend to take the past less seriously than the present because it’s over. We’re only hearing about it rather than seeing it happen—even though it’s presented as a scene.

2. Any flashback, no matter how well written or interesting, can distance your reader from the action. This is because flashbacks shatter the illusion that the reader is a fly on the wall, witnessing events as they happen, right now. Are you more thrilled by a kiss you experience today or one you remember from a year ago?

3. Flashbacks disrupt the story’s timeline and can stop the momentum. And if there are a lot of them, they can leech the vividness out of the whole story and invalidate the story’s present.

So, whenever you feel the need to fill in backstory, ask yourself first:
• Is this needed to move the story along?
• If the answer is yes, then ask yourself, can this be written as a real-time scene?
• If no, try to determine if you gain more in depth and clarity than you lose in immediacy.

Every story has its history or backstory. But we can’t start every one at birth and include all of the traumatic childhood or life events that shaped the character and made him what he is today. You might choose to write up this background in one or more scenes—just for your own personal knowledge of your character—and not use much or any of it in your story.

When to use Flashbacks.
This is not to say that you can NEVER use flashbacks. They can be done effectively. Like with so many writing techniques, it’s a matter of moderation.

Again, according to the experts, don’t open with a flashback. (Of course there’s an exception to that rule, too.) But the danger of opening with a flashback is that in the early stages of a story, interest is a fragile thing. Your reader is in search of entertainment, and he’s not sure yet if he’s going to find what he wants in your particular story.

Sometimes flashback might be the only way to develop your plot. But make sure to spend the largest proportion of your time in the present.

So, if you’re going to use a flashback, make sure the running plot in your story is strong, clear and well-established before splitting off to do anything else, whether following a subplot or embarking on a flashback. Make sure the flashback is vivid and interesting in itself. Connect the flashback plot with the present plot.

Next month I'll talk about how to handle flashbacks when you do use them.

In the Beginning

The beginning of your story, whether it is a short story or a novel, is the most important part of your book. It is where you hook your reader, and hooking your reader is a definite must. Many a book has been laid down only to never be picked up again because the reader found the first page or two to be boring.

You can have the best character ever created, but you need to get that character into some type of action that will grab and hold onto the reader's attention. He/she needs to be hungry for more and more of your story. So you need to choose an opening action that can be built upon. According to Chris Roerden in Don't Murder Your Mystery, "Caring about the main character is the ultimate hook." This is so true because you can build upon this in so many ways.

The reader needs to identify with the character's feelings, and there must be contradictions of some type. It is good to introduce the main character as quickly as you can into the story. The reader should wonder about who, what, when, where, how, and why. Curiosity will keep them reading. As the author, it is your duty to keep their curiosity going throughout the whole book until the end where you will satisfy and answer all their questions about the story and the main character.

Even though it may be necessary to include backstory and description, these can be added later in the story and must be kept to only what is needed to satisfy your reader's curiosity. Backstory can be worked into the action, adding more interest and adding fuel to the reader's interest. Adverbs and adjectives must be minimized also.

So what is the best hook? One that can be built upon? The main character, of course, and the problems with which he/she will be faced. Remember, the job of a hook is to stretch the reader's interest beyond the first sentence; and if the author does it right, the reader's interest will go well beyond the first chapter.

Which of the following would grab your interest?

It was a dark and stormy night.


Maggie's hands gripped the gun as she looked down the barrel at the fear in the eyes of the man who raped her.

Faye M. Tollison
Author of To Tell the Truth
Upcoming books: The Bible Murders and Sarah's Secret
Member of: Sisters In Crime
                   Writers on the Move

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