Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Question of Back-Story

I was one of the lucky ones. I saw the Roundabout’s production of The Glass Menagerie before it closed. I had seen The Glass Menagerie before, both the play and the movie, and I’ve read and studied it. But Judith Ivey’s portrayal of Amanda was unlike anything I’ve seen or imagined. Her character work was extraordinary. It was a performance I will never forget. And it was a brilliant lesson in creating back-story.

Ivey’s Amanda was relentlessly cheerful. Her goal was clear – a better future for her children. She tried so hard to achieve it, only to fall short each time. The scene where she finally sells the magazines subscription was so heartbreaking it was all I could do to keep from sobbing out loud.

But everything this Amanda Wingfield did and said was so full and rich and different. And it was all due to the incredibly rich back-story she created. She still loved her scoundrel husband who she hasn’t seen in years. I believed she would have married him all over again – knowing he would leave her to raise two kids alone – just to have that short time together. And knowing it was her choice she soldiered on, relentlessly cheerful, down to every last rise and shine. She made a decision on how to be a single parent and never changed. Unfortunately, her children did. They grew up.

Of course, I could be completely wrong about Ms. Ivey’s back-story. But isn’t that the beauty of it? She used her own personal back-story to create a flesh and blood character, with motivation and action. What I saw may not be what she imagined, but it was still our shared experience.

Oh – wait. I’m supposed to be talking about writing, right? Well, I am. I’m at that point in my WIP where I’m working on my characters, giving them each a fuller, more detailed back-story. I’ve long been a proponent of listing character traits, building in lots of tidbits that may or may not be used. But now I’m hungry for more. I want to go deeper – no more bits and pieces, I want to find the story in each back-story.

I took a look at Write Away, by Elizabeth George, one of my favorite books on writing, and looked for advice on creating character. George creates a Character Prompt Sheet for each character, chock filled with physical, emotional and psychological traits. She also free writes an analysis about each character. George says she considers the character analysis “ a bit of private conversation between me and myself and I often throw ideas on the screen one after another until I get a feel for the character.” Her analysis goes on for several pages, taking twists and turns in exploration.

I’ve often journaled as a character, but I’ve never before tried this kind of analysis -- this “third person” way of looking at character and motivation. I’m eager to add this tool to my writing arsenal.

So tell me, what is your favorite way to build character?


  1. I LOVE Elizabeth George's "Write Away"!

    I created character sketches, as suggested by George and my first semester VCFA advisor, Sharon Darrow. I wrote a four page character analysis of my protagonist and about a two paragraph analysis of the antagonist before I started writing my wip. I also created an "outline" of the plot. Now I'm 175 pages into it and it's interesting how much (plot wise) my story has changed, but the characters are rock solid with the analysis I wrote when I was just starting.

  2. Meg, I'm glad to hear that it worked for you. I think I may spend a few days creating a character analysis for some in my WIP. I've made major changes in some of my characters. It might be a good idea to go back to basics before plunging ahead.

  3. In the adult novel I'm reading right now, "The Lake Shore Limited" by Sue Miller, a playwright and an actor discuss how to say one word - the all-important last word in a play. It's amazing the number of nuances you can give one word, nuances that sum up a character.

    Is acting even more complex than writing? Or is it harder to get the written character "voice" correct?

  4. At an NJSCBWI Conference, editor Cheryl Klein gave a great talk about developing a character's back story. Did you ever hear it? She introduced herself as if she were a character in a book, giving her audience a litany of details about herself that she believes we writers should jot down about our own characters before we begin our manuscripts--their likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses, important days in their past, physical tics, romantic and family ties, height, weight, eye color, place of birth...stuff like that. I loved it.

  5. JL, I did hear that talk -- and I use that list with a few other "tics" thrown in. But when I read Elizabeth George's character analysis, I thought -- oh, yeah. This goes even deeper. It sort of takes the list and allows you to use it in a stream of consciousness kind of way.

  6. What a wonderful post! Back-story fascinates me and I'm always interested to hear or read how other writers approach it. I find that I am writing more about my characters with each project that I work on. And getting to know them is fun, which is a bonus.