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May 22, 2018 in characters by Matthew Brown
Crafting a unique character with an interesting character backstory is quite easy – all you need to do is ask yourself the right questions.
I wrote on my own blog that running an RPG game is very similar to writing a story (but with the help and hindrance of friends). Following up on that, I thought I’d explore character creation from the perspective of someone who has played these sorts of games. If you happen to be in the majority of readers who have not, don’t worry about the RPG bit as we are just talking about character creation from the story perspective.
Why do you need a backstory?
The character backstory of your main protagonist (and indeed your antagonist too) may, to some, seem like surplus information. However, it is the background – the path they took into the story – that gives your character depth and makes them seem real. The thing that brings a character to life is not what they do but why they do it.
In an RPG setting, the games master can use character backgrounds as hooks to build adventures (stories) around. In a novel, the character backgrounds are used by the author to build a plot. That process of building a backstory is – for both settings – exactly the same.
The backstory is why Lord of the Rings feels so rich and real and a lot of people feel Twilight was a bit lacking. A full character backstory allows for a rich and complex character with rich and complex motivations. Not to mention, the possibility of finding weaknesses for your hero that the villain can exploit.
This is where, I felt, Dawn of Justice (the DC film) let itself down. The opening scenes (after the fluff we all know about Batman) sees Bruce Wayne trying to save civilians from the fall out of superhumans smashing up the landscape in the epic climatic battle. Those moments make a much stronger motivation than the tired old dead parents storyline.
Had I been writing that film, I would have tied back to that destruction and the aftermath. After all, the question of what does Bruce Wayne wants (in this movie) should be: “To prevent another tragedy like the destruction he witnessed in the opening moments”. Now, when he goes after Superman, Batman finds himself in the role of well-intentioned extremist (the antagonist role). The final act can then be a redemption story. It would have been dark but also really solid as opposed to, well, what we actually got. So close, DC. So close.
Six key questions to ask about every character
I’ve been talking to friends I play RPGs with about running a new game. For this game, I want to use rich backstories. Which is how I came to be looking for resources to help the other players. In my search, I found this video. “6 Questions to Make the Ultimate Backstory”.
6 Questions to Make the Ultimate Backstory
To recap the video, here are the six questions again:
- Where was the Character Born?
- Who are their parents and are the parents (and other family members) still alive?
- What was your character doing before the adventuring life?
- Why did your character leave their previous life?
- What did your character leave behind?
- What does your character want?
The first three questions deal with the characters foundations. The early formation that shaped who they are. These are questions that will tie your character into the setting you have created for the story. If you have seen my character background worksheet, you will know I dedicate the very first section of the sheet (about four lines) to those questions. Ask at any of our events if you want to see the character development worksheet.
Those first three questions also make it a little bit harder to write terrible Mary Sue characters. Hard, not impossible. These are questions about grounding the character in their reality and not fixing really bad ideas.
The last three questions – why they left, what they left, and what they want – are about the forces that drive the character into the plot of your story. Or, in the case of an RPG, into the first chapter of a game.
Over to you
Those where six questions to ask about your character to start forming a character backstory. I like to add questions like:
- What do they like?
- Who or what do they love?
- Who or what do they hate?
- How many vices do they have and what are they?
- Just as they have vices, do they have virtues?
On the Author Buzz forums, there is a running thread of interview questions to ask your character. As you can see, these six questions are far from the only questions you could ask about your character. Those six above are, probably, the best six starting questions you can ask.
What sort of questions do you ask about your characters as you are developing them?
April 27, 2018 in thanet-creative by Matthew Brown
Any story can be broken down into scenes and each scene works in the same way. You probably know that way very well – one or more persons want something and they encounter one or more problems stand between the character and their goal.
But did you know that scenes are like bricks? Bricks need mortar to hold them together. What holds a collection of scenes together is the scene-sequel.
The scene-sequel is made of the elements that guide us from one moment to the next. Let us take a look at how that works.
The scene and scene-sequel
As you know the scene opens with one or more people that want something. That something is called the goal. In this diagram, the goal is appearing on the TV.
While attempting to get to the goal, the characters encounter problems which they solve until they run into a critical problem and experience a setback. Maybe the casting agent said no. Maybe the studio is not hiring right now. Whatever the failure is it has blocked their way forward.
That failure ends the scene. But we do not start the next scene. Instead, we take a moment to get into the head of the characters.
Unless you are writing the closing chapter where the characters finally escape “peril” and achieve catharsis (resolution), all scenes end with a failure or disaster of some kind.
The first thing we write about is the emotional response. How the character or characters feel about what has happened. If this is a romance story we will linger on this section. If it is an action adventure the section will be so small that you might even miss it.
Our would-be actors feel crushed. They are sad and their earlier enthusiasm becomes self-doubt.
But after the rush of emotions comes the cool-headed thinking. This is the reasoning stage. A good detective story might linger on this section a great deal. This is when the characters get creative in their thinking and make a plan.
Our duo decides to audition with a different studio as extras and work their way up the ladder.
Then comes anticipation. Anticipation is where the characters think about how others will see them, about what might happen next. In a tense thriller, we will linger here with the opposing sides each trying to anticipate the next move of the other. Likewise, a good romance might also linger here with the anticipation of the first kiss.
In our case, maybe they anticipate that their friends will see them as failures. So they agree to lie about getting the acting job. Of course, this will set up a situation where they will have further hard choices to make. If this is a comedy things will work out but if this is a drama…
Finally, the person acts. That action is not entirely logical, preemptive, or emotional but a combination of all three. The readers can see why the character is acting as they are. They might not agree but they will understand the character’s motivation.
Action can lead us back into the next scene or – if there are more than one viewpoint characters – it can lead to further sequels as others react to the action. One of the staples of comedy is the piling up of mistaken interpretations of actions and misguided anticipation to have the characters is ever more ridiculous situations.
How each causes the next
Reasoning can and should cut across emotion but one should flow into the next. The strongest emotions inform the priorities for reasoning. Anticipation should flow naturally from the reasoning.
The kind-hearted spy realises that the one person who knows her secret is trapped in the airlock. She feels relieved that he cannot call for help but worried that he might die as she fears becoming a killer. She reasons that she should save the man in the airlock. It is the right thing to do and only she can do it. But then she anticipates that he will inform on her; if he raises the alarm she will be killed. Reluctantly she chooses to let him perish as the doors open and he is sucked into space. That choice will haunt her for some time to come.
While we may only show the viewpoint character going through this range of reactions, we need to show that the other characters that he or she interacts with may also be doing this too. In dramatic circles that cycle is called character motivation. A good storyteller makes the motivation clear.
How to use the scene cycle
If you are ever stuck trying to get characters from one scene to the next, it may be that you have forgotten to take them through the four steps of the scene-sequel.
Maybe the action you need next seems out of character. Let the character go through the process of emotion, reasoning, and anticipation that leads them to a critical departure from their normal behaviour.
Maybe you need the characters to try something unusual or different. Take them through the cycle and have them make some hard choices.
Whenever you are stuck and need to have characters take an apparent sharp right turn, the cycle is the process that keeps readers from seeing this as broken.
I will cover more about scene building infuture posts. For now, try applying it to a difficult scene and let me know how it workds out.
April 26, 2018 in being-a-writer by Matthew Brown
This post is inspired by a question on Author Buzz that I’ve been meaning to answer for a month but (ironically) I’ve felt a little blocked myself.
Tips from around the web for dealing with writer’s block
Writers Digest on writer’s block
These tips are inspired by a WritersDigest.com article on the subject.
Do something – anything – creative
If you are feeling blocked, switch tracks and do something else creative. Keep stimulating that creative part of your mind and let your unconscious self have time to think.
Sometimes we cannot write not because we are blocked mentally but because we are blocked by distractions. Nagging tasks, loud sounds, bad smells, hunger… Whatever is distracting you – go deal with it and then come back and try again.
Nicole Bianchi’s tips for writer’s block
These tips are from a post written by Nicole Bianchi on writer’s block.
Make yourself write anyway
Sometimes just getting on with the process of writing can be enough to get you started. Nicole Bianchi recommends this exact approach and it is one that has, in the past, helped me to get unstuck. It is hard but it does work.
Do what Neil Gaiman does and take a few days off
Nicole Bianchi quotes several famous writers and the way they deal with a lack of muse. Personally, as a huge Gaiman fan, I am inclined to take this advice as gospel. As a slight variation on it – get some sleep. You have no idea how hard it is to write if you are tired.
Advice on writer’s block from Wikipedia
Okay, don’t shoot me. I know Wikipedia is hardly the place most writers turn to for advice. However, the article on writer’s block is very interesting.
Analyse your own process
Take a deep long introspective look at your own creative process. Perhaps document it as you do. At the very least this will give you something to blog about. It may also help you find out what inspires you and if some step you need but were unaware of is missing.
I recently discovered I need silence to write. I’ve always known that I think with the same part of my mind that I use to understand what people are saying to me. What I failed to realise is that when there is hubbub around me, the very part of my mind that I need for writing is busy.
Get some encouragement
Print of four or five copies of the last five pages you wrote and bring them along to a friendly writers’ group. Thanet Creative have tea and chat every Thursday as well as social meetups. Trust me – that feedback gets you writing like nothing else. Also knowing that people are keen to see what happens next can be a powerful motivation to get it written.
Tips from IO9 on writer’s block
IO9 have a post called the ten types of writer’s block and how to overcome it. Here are two suggestions from that list.
Go on a tangent
You may be blocked because you are not yet ready to acknowledge a giant hole in your plot. Don’t be frightened to take the story off on a tangent and see what happens. Even if you chuck that part away alter, you will have gotten to know your characters and the setting that bit better – and you are still writing. My best work happens on tangents.
Chuck out the last chapter, or even the last 50 pages and go from there.
Sometimes you are blocked because, quite honestly, you took a wrong turn and none of this makes any sense. When that happens the only option is to backtrack and try again. I’d suggest trying the tangent first but sometimes there is nothing else for it.
Over to you
This is where you come in. What are your tips for overcoming writer’s block? What gets you writing again when you grind to a stop?
Let us know in the comments section below.
April 19, 2018 in opinion by Christian Writer
How do you deal with aggressive comments and angry feedback?
I write about Christianity. As a result, I deal with my fair share of confrontational comments. None of them on my blog sadly. (I would love some nice comments if you have time).
These are five techniques that I use to defuse aggression. I hope that they can help you too.
1. Try to address the root objection
Sometimes a comment is angry not at you but because of the topic you have raised. For me, this is often what is going on with friends and family when they seem suddenly aggressive.
Rather than replying I ask questions. These questions are designed to find out what it is that they are upset with. I am often surprised at how often the person is not really angry with me or anything I’ve said.
2. Find something to agree with
Some people are aggressive because they feel alone. I try to identify something that other person has said that I can agree with. I try to make my agreement clear and enthusiastic.
That alone can defuse a situation like nothing else can.
Most aggression comes from unhappy Christians (atheists seem much calmer on the whole). Therefore, it is usually quite easy to find common ground. As soon as I can get to common ground with a person, they almost always become calm and rational.
3. Remain kind and calm despite aggressive comments
It is very hard to keep being angry with a person who is being kind to you. I believe in trying to show all people love. That is not an easy thing to do but it does work.
Even if you can find no kindness to show the angry person (do try), remain calm. Remember this is just an internet comment. There is no rush to reply. Take all week if you need to.
4. Acknowledge their point of view
Validating the other person’s point of view is a great way to defuse an argument. I have a theory called agnosis (it means knowing nothing). Agnosis means that I am probably wrong about something. Remembering that makes it much easier to acknowledge the other person’s view even if I cannot agree with it.
Sometimes all the other person wants is to feel that their point of view is still valid. You lose nothing by letting someone feel that it is okay to have a different idea to you.
5. If all else fails, walk away
Some people want to fight, not talk. There are cases where there is just no point continuing. Internet jargon labels these people trolls. Trolls just want to provoke a fight.
Walk away from trolls.
There is a big, amazing, beautiful world full of mystery and majesty right outside. Step away from your computer and enjoy that instead.
I am amazed how often taking some time away results in someone else saying the right thing in my absence. I just needed to give them time.
April 8, 2018 in thanet-creative by Matthew Brown
Often I write for Thanet Creative as us; today I write only as me. I write to set out my vision for the charity and our community.
Create good art
I believe that the highest expression of what it means to be human is the act of creation. We call that act art. It is part of who we are. We can no more deny the art within than water can choose not to be wet. Every one of us has a unique expression of art that only they can make.
As Neil Gaiman famously once said, “The one thing you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can. The moment that you feel that just possibly you are walking down the street naked…that’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.”
What I want, more than anything else, for Thanet Creative is to enable others – young and old alike – to develop the art within them. I believe that art can be both therapy and employment. I want to enable people to discover that for themselves.
Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do. Make good art.
— Neil Gaiman
Include both the good and the strange
While some creatives – artists – are easy to embrace, others require an investment of time to even comprehend. We must be willing to make that investment. How many game-changing ideas have been lost because the community failed to create a safe space for the introvert, the socially awkward, and the strange among us? How many generations failed to appreciate era-defining art during the artist’s lifetime? We must do our best to history remembers us as a community that included such people.
Thanet Creative must become and remain a place of inclusivity; a home for art, if you will. The best and most creative souls often reside in the hearts of people society deems strange, weird, or unusual. Sometimes society deems us worthless or somehow “less”; in those times, society is wrong. We must remember that we were all outsiders once and welcome other outsiders into our community with open arms. Thanet Creative must be a sanctuary for all who wish to make art.
If we are ever to be a home for the Thanet’s writers, Thanet’s creatives, and all children of art, we must be inclusive. We must cast off any vestiges of judgement, prejudice, or hostility for what we do not understand. Only then can we truly be not just a community but an extended family – brothers and sisters in art.
No to bullies and bigots
Thanet Creative must now and always stand against bullies and bigotry. There will be no place in our ranks for those who seek to be unkind, divisive, deceptive, unpleasant, or cruel. We will call such people what they are – bullies and cowards. Bullies can never be part of the family of art. They would not even know how until after they truly and demonstrably repent of their cowardice.
For those struggling to fit in, for those being bullied, and all who feel invisible, we will say “there is nothing wrong with you,” and we will say, “you are welcome here.” But to the bullies, the bigots, and all that seek harm for others, we will say, “Begone.”
As a family of art, we cannot protect the world but we can protect our brothers and sisters closest to us. We will choose to look after the people to the left of us and the people to the right of us.
Set the art free.
We must recognise that the idea of art itself cannot be owned. No matter how original our ideas and ambitions may seem, there will always be another with the similar ideas and ambitions. That is a good thing. It is how we recognise our closest brothers and sisters of art.
When we see other people doing what we are doing, the answer must never be hostility. We should reach out to our brothers and sisters of art and support them because that is what we need too. The success of others in no way diminishes our own art; instead, their success may well open doors for our success. Even if it doesn’t the best way to succeed is to be around those that support and encourage success in others.
Jealousy and possessiveness must have no part in our creative process. Art is like the tides and even kings and queens cannot command the waves. So then, brothers and sisters of art, if we cannot control and own art, let us set it free.
A family of cooperating artists
What every artist needs is the space and opportunity to try and, possibly, fail without judgement. We will build a family of cooperation, trust and inclusion. I see Thanet Creative as a community where our brothers and sisters of art may feel safe.
When we feel safe within our community we will quite naturally be more willing, more able, more motivated to combine our skills to produce great art. That safety is what I want for our community. The opportunity to try and fail is something I want Thanet Creative to offer.
Opportunity sets the art free. Opportunity enables us to make good art. I want Thanet Creative to multiply opportunity.
Opportunity to develop our craft.
I want for Thanet Creative to be a community that enables its family to develop the art within. For me, this has often been about teaching others what I know about writing – telling great stories. I have seen all sorts of people come to our events unsure if they can write and yet with a story burning within them. Over time, I have seen those same people grow in their craft. I have seen them express their art in a way that seemed impossible to them at one time.
As a charity, I want to see us offer the same opportunity to as many people as possible. Sometimes that will mean offering training or finding the right teachers. Sometimes it may simply mean sharing our safe space. Always, though, it will make Thanet a better place one person at a time.
Opportunity to express new ideas.
For me, art is primarily the expression of new ideas. Ideas need a platform – a space – to be expressed. Our events, our website, or forums, and everything we set up has been to provide an opportunity for our brothers and sisters to express new ideas.
Art empowers us for change. Literacy, storytelling, and the sharing of ideas has the power to take the things in our wider community that are broken and change them. Art is power.
I want to see Thanet Creative continue to build these opportunities for self-expression. To create an environment where we can make good art. Not just in our various online forums but in our literature and poetry based events.
Opportunity to be exposed to new ideas and perspectives
By enabling our brothers and sisters of art to express new ideas, we do we gain another opportunity – the exposure of ourselves to stimulating new ideas. In many ways, art exists to expose the public consciousness to new ideas. It enriches our community.
That’s part of what I value in the events that Thanet Creative run – each person who comes brings something new. While there is no way to know exactly who or what ideas, each event is an adventure in sharing with our art brothers and art sisters.
New ideas are that which stretches us. Exposure to fresh thinking forces us to grow as people and as creators of art. It strengthens our sense of self. I want to see Thanet Creative to continue to facilitate the creation of opportunities to encounter and explore new ideas. New ideas come with a degree of risk attached. But if we continue to do what we have always done we will get what we have always gotten. Change needs risk.
Opportunity to participate
Nothing empowers us in quite the same way as when we can actively participate in our community. What I want to do with Thanet Creative is provide that opportunity to as many people as possible. That’s why we’ve said that we will support our members however we can in whatever creative events they want to run.
With each new member that we enable to participate, we enrich our ability to support our members. After all, this is a family of art. As families get bigger, there are more brothers and sisters to support you. The same, I think, is true for us.
Join our family of art
I am told that most people stop reading an article in the first paragraph. The longer the article, the lower the chances that a person will read to the end. As a person who has read to the end, you are already beating the odds – I hope that means my vision for Thanet Creative resonates with you.
I want to invite you to join our family of art. You can become a member of the charity, Thanet Creative, for a minimum donation of just £1 a year. I’d hope that those that have more might donate more but I am pleased that we have very lower barriers to joining.
As we enter week 2 of our (February) awesome blogger awards we’ve seen some interesting discussion themes starting. Now, let us look forward to the second week.
Facts about February
Here is a list of the “best” […]