Horrible fact of writing: you are going to know a lot more about your character than will ever be put on the page. This also drags writers down, because often they’re so exciting about their characters, that they want to share everything. Instead of conveying that excitement, it drags the story down, and loses the reader.
So, backstory. Backstory is essential. It is also a pain, figuring out what goes where. Your character worksheets are going to have some backstory, maybe a lot, so for this part, we’re going to focus on the essentials.
- Pick out the major events. That test your character failed in third grade is not going to impact them the same way their parents’ divorce did (unless the character connects the two). Pick out the really important things, whether or not your characters are aware of them. What caused a great internal change? What external issue brings them to the plot now? These things are going to be what your reader will need to know.
- Backstory Timeline: Your character didn’t spring to life the second their story starts on the page. Take that starting point and move backward: how did they get there? When did they move to _____ town, what did they get their degree in? This is going to be more mundane details than your major points, but they’re important too. You might stumble upon a great location, or a new plot idea you didn’t think of before. This can also be an ongoing list; you don’t have to go it in one go.
Both your main characters, supporting characters, and antagonists (we’ll get to them later) need backstory. Like I mentioned earlier, you don’t need it all right now, and some of it will probably change while plotting, but now’s a good time to get started.
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Beau Willimon, screenwriter for House of Cards, in a panel discussion covered by The Atlantic.
This is what I mean when I say characters don’t have to be “likable”, but they do have to be “sympathetic” (the word sympathisch in German has a slightly different meaning from our “sympathetic”, so I think that’s why I choose that term over another one, such as “attractive”). How else would a character like Humbert Humbert be a protagonist?
annawritesbooks said: Are there any cliche twists in stories to avoid?
Anonymous said: I'm having a hard time coming up with and developing an antagonist for my characters origin story. A little bit on the protagonist : she finds out she can heal herself and others (loosely, depending on injury), has a healthy relationship with her family and following her return from the olympics, decides pursues a carrier in medicine (probably nursing) so she can help others, but I'm not sure how to flesh out the antagonist or how they'll be a pain in the butt for the protagonist. Help :(
Buckle up friends, Headless is talking about antagonism again
Protagonists are great! They are the ones we root for, the ones we rally behind and sometimes see the world of the story through. But a protagonist without some sort of antagonistic force runs the risk of falling stagnant.
Antagonists As Non-Characters
Something I think a lot of people forget is that antagonists do not have to be living, breathing (or undead) characters. A work without an antagonist is not necessarily dead in the water as long as it has an antagonistic force. If the protagonist is still working to overcome something, achieve something, do something, then whatever is stopping them is an antagonistic force. The moment something sentient(ish) gets involved and becomes the source of friction and conflict, they become the antagonist. But sometimes, the conflict has no face attached to it (for better or worse).
What purpose does your antagonist serve? What are they (or it) keeping the protagonist from? Where is it coming from? If it comes from a person, that person is the antagonist. If it comes from a thing, idea, emotion, or something else (the protagonist is battling a drug problem, for instance, or is on a quest to prove themselves or reach a goal), then you have an antagonistic force.
Not every story is in dire need of a villain. The No Antagonist approach works for some stories and not for others. If yours is one of them, embrace it. If not, keep going.
Antagonists as Characters
Antagonists are great and I love them dearly. A great way to start figuring out the antagonist is to really flesh out the protagonist, so you are already doing well. Take a moment to look at their relationship:
How is the antagonist working against your protagonist? Are they a villain with good PR who can leverage public opinion against the protagonist’s missteps? Will they be actively working to trip up the protagonist, or will they stay out of the field and send minions to do their bidding for them? Do they run the show up close and in person, or are they shrouded in mystery and veils of conspiracy?
How does the antagonist fit in to the plot? If you have an outline or a rough idea of the story, you may already have a faint-to-semisolid idea of what the protagonist needs to accomplish and the role the antagonist needs to fill. Look more at what they need to do: will they be taking over a megazillionaire corporation, legally or otherwise? Will they be subverting governmental authority and constantly escaping law enforcement? Do they have control over something they shouldn’t? Think about what your antagonist has that your protagonist needs, or vice versa. Or, consider what your antagonist is standing in front of and keeping your protagonist from getting to.
Who are they? Antagonists should still be characters, which means that taking the time to make them well-rounded and genuinely interesting can only do you good. Spend some time thoroughly developing whatever aspects of your antagonist strike you first: they might lead you to something else.
But I’m Still Stuck (Your Articles Are Too Long): Antagonist 911
What is it going to take to bring the protagonist to their absolute lowest? This is, after all, in some antagonists’ job descriptions. To create an antagonist specific to your protagonist, center their creation around your protagonist’s destruction. Build your antagonist around a conflict or a particular fatal flaw of the protagonist’s. Figure out what it will take to break your character’s resolve, and then work backwards: what skills does that require? What would be a good job or position for the antagonist to be in? How did they get there?
Antagonists and villains can be different. Not all villains carry a card proclaiming such—is your antagonist villainous, strictly speaking? Or are they more of a rival? There is a divide between them: Antagonism is force against the protagonist, and an antagonist is someone who brings about negative progress in the protagonist’s journey. Villainy is more along the lines of evil. What is the best way to label your antagonist?
When all else fails: Make a giant list of things your antagonist could not be. Oftentimes, this can help jog your imagination to help you think of things they could be.
You change, little by little, every day, and so should the people you write.
Character change is the result of seeing a different point of view or having new feelings over a subject. But it’s never without a reason. If you want your protagonist to grow as a person, just create that initiating factor.
Twice now I’ve played a game called Hook Me with my followers in which I asked them to submit titles and summaries in the form of a query letter. The goal was to hook me with their summaries and/or titles. Afterwards, I gave feedback.
This round is going to be simple.
I am only asking that you submit a summary of your story in the form of a query letter (look at paragraph 2). Look through that link and make sure you know what a query letter is before you submit. If you want to go through the traditional publishing path, you’re going to have to write a query letter one day.
- Length:Your submission cannot be longer than two messages sent through the ask feature.
- Submitting: Please do not send your summary through fan mail or through the submit feature. These submissions will be deleted. Only send through the ask feature.
- Content: Send the summary and the genre. Put the genre at the beginning or end of the message in all caps. I will provide a list of abbreviations under the read more so that you can have more space for your submission.
- No Anonymous: Do not send your question anonymously. If you are one of the winners, I will need a way to contact you. Anonymous submissions cannot win.
- Nickname: I post the URLs of the winners. If you are okay with me sharing your tumblr, include a nickname (make it short, like 3 letters) at the beginning or end of your message. If you are not okay with it, do not include a nickname.
- Original Fiction: You can only submit original fiction.
Please read this entire post to get more details: