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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Character: Description & Back Story

In this third installment of The Rouge Wave Week O' Refreshing, we talk about describing your characters and the importance of back story:

Describing Your Character:

How much should you describe your character? You definitely need to tell us how old they are but you only need to describe their clothing to the degree that it reflects the character’s personality. Say we’re describing a couple on the beach. Is the woman in a one or two-piece bathing suit? Is the guy in a Speedo or in trunks? That is pretty pertinent and telling information about a character, no? But the color of the bathing suits really doesn’t matter. How a character wears their hair is definitely an insight; but if you’re writing a businessman, I don’t really care whether his hair is parted on the side, curly or parted in the middle. But I would be interested if he had a crew cut or a shaved head. I’m interested to know if a character has a tattoo. I’m interested if a woman is wearing flats or stilettos.

What if your character is non-descript? Sure – that can work – as long as it is for effect. Some characters have signature looks: Dorothy with her pinafore and braids, George Clooney in O BROTHER with his pomade, Glenn Close in FATAL ATTRACTION with her Medusa-hair. Are you starting to get the distinction between brief descriptions which tell us about your character’s psyche versus fashion laundry-lists? When you describe your character you are only drawing broad strokes and intimating much more than you are describing. You are giving us a snapshot.

Descriptions are necessary only insofar as they tell us things we need to know or infer about your character. A guy with dreadlocks has just told us so much about himself. An adult with braces has too. So just give us those broad strokes and hints so we can make some assumptions and form some opinions about your character. Don’t micro-manage and describe every last detail. It’s unimportant, it’s boring and it will mark you as an amateur.

Back story

Whether they are 6 years old or 67, your character had a life that preceded page 1 of your script. I refer to anything before page 1 as "page negative 10". You know - like algebra. What happened two weeks before the story started would be page negative 10. What happened a couple of years before the story might be page negative 100. I won't belabor that point; it's just my weird way of articulating not only back story but specific events in the back story.

For newer writers especially - and I remember this frustration so keenly though it was years ago - it's confusing to add back story to the current story. Sometimes writers think they need to show a whole flashback to let us know that in the past, say, the guy had an affair. Or that in the past, the character's brother drowned.

To flashback or not to flashback is an oft-argued point. Most would argue against using it unless what you're going to show is completely and totally pivotal to the story. In ORDINARY PEOPLE we do finally see a truncated flashback of Hutton's brother dying. It was the emotional crux of the entire movie.

Gently fold the back story into the story going forward. It’s easy enough for your character to make mention in passing of events or maybe, to take that to a more sophisticated level, they have aversions to something because of “that time when I was nine” etc. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. Think about your own back story. We all have them. What has affected you in the past? Do you now avoid margaritas because of that time three years ago? We don’t need to hear the whole story, we can infer what happened with the margaritas three years ago and we can understand why this character would rather have a coke and rum. Back story fills in the present story with pastel shades, it affects the characters sometimes overtly but if you write well, there’s no need to detail what happened. Unless the story calls for it.

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