What to Explore, What to Ignore

What I’m about to discuss is most critical when creating your protagonist, though it also can be valuable when developing your opponent (so that you make sure the conflict between these two main characters is meaningful and interesting, not just a clash of wills or personalities) and key secondary characters (those who have a profound emotional impact on the main characters). Just don’t get bogged down in creating backstory for characters who don’t really need it; that’s nothing but an industrious form of writer’s block.

To the greatest extent possible, focus on envisioning scenes that serve a purpose in your story-in-progress, or that reflect meaningfully on the character. That said, dreaming up emotionally revealing scenes that you may ultimately discard is no waste of time; it’s an inevitable part of the writing process.

Whether or not they have a place in your final story, it’s important to delve into key moments of real emotional impact—scenes of helplessness—that in some way changed the character’s life, her understanding of herself, her standing among others. There’s no need to craft these backstory/
biographical scenes into final form. Mere sketches will do, enough to give you a vivid impression of the character.

[Here are 10 Questions You Need to Ask Your Characters]

Before you begin, try to have a basic understanding of your story, especially the three basic elements that will make it dramatic:

  • The Problem: What the main characters want, both consciously and unconsciously, and what stands in their way, both internally and externally. (Often, what stands in the way is each other. Their wants are irreconcilable.)
  • The Insight: The crucial revelation the character gains about himself and/or his world in his struggle (and failure) to solve the Problem. (This is most true, and often only true, of the protagonist.)
  • The Decision: The life-changing choice prompted by the Insight, allowing the character one last chance to solve the Problem. (Again, this is primarily
    applicable to the protagonist, though it sometimes can be interesting for the opponent to make a similar, opposite choice.)

Once you have a decent understanding of those elements of your story, you’ll have a ballpark idea of what biographical information from a character’s past is most valuable to pursue. You’ll also have a reasonably good idea of what secondary characters need to be in the story, what roles they’ll play and how deeply you need to understand them.

For example, if the character’s Problem involves falling in love, then issues of commitment and self-worth will often be part of her Problem. So you’ll want to explore past moments of pride and success as well as shame and rejection to flesh out how she’s come to feel the way she does about herself, and how she behaves toward people she’s attracted to. Her Insight will require understanding how these past incidents have shaped and limited her. Her Decision will involve a determination to somehow overcome them.

What I’m about to discuss is most critical when creating your protagonist, though it also can be valuable when developing your opponent (so that you make sure the conflict between these two main characters is meaningful and interesting, not just a clash of wills or personalities) and key secondary characters (those who have a profound emotional impact on the main characters). Just don’t get bogged down in creating backstory for characters who don’t really need it; that’s nothing but an industrious form of writer’s block.

To the greatest extent possible, focus on envisioning scenes that serve a purpose in your story-in-progress, or that reflect meaningfully on the character. That said, dreaming up emotionally revealing scenes that you may ultimately discard is no waste of time; it’s an inevitable part of the writing process.

Whether or not they have a place in your final story, it’s important to delve into key moments of real emotional impact—scenes of helplessness—that in some way changed the character’s life, her understanding of herself, her standing among others. There’s no need to craft these backstory/
biographical scenes into final form. Mere sketches will do, enough to give you a vivid impression of the character.

[Here are 10 Questions You Need to Ask Your Characters]

Before you begin, try to have a basic understanding of your story, especially the three basic elements that will make it dramatic:

  • The Problem: What the main characters want, both consciously and unconsciously, and what stands in their way, both internally and externally. (Often, what stands in the way is each other. Their wants are irreconcilable.)
  • The Insight: The crucial revelation the character gains about himself and/or his world in his struggle (and failure) to solve the Problem. (This is most true, and often only true, of the protagonist.)
  • The Decision: The life-changing choice prompted by the Insight, allowing the character one last chance to solve the Problem. (Again, this is primarily
    applicable to the protagonist, though it sometimes can be interesting for the opponent to make a similar, opposite choice.)

Once you have a decent understanding of those elements of your story, you’ll have a ballpark idea of what biographical information from a character’s past is most valuable to pursue. You’ll also have a reasonably good idea of what secondary characters need to be in the story, what roles they’ll play and how deeply you need to understand them.

For example, if the character’s Problem involves falling in love, then issues of commitment and self-worth will often be part of her Problem. So you’ll want to explore past moments of pride and success as well as shame and rejection to flesh out how she’s come to feel the way she does about herself, and how she behaves toward people she’s attracted to. Her Insight will require understanding how these past incidents have shaped and limited her. Her Decision will involve a determination to somehow overcome them.

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