For a long time I read books and blogs and essays on how to improve my writing, especially as it relates to character. And the sources always say things like, What is your character’s world view? What does your character want? (goal) How have their past experiences influenced them? What’s the worst possible event you could throw at your protagonist based on his/her emotional wounds? Make it hard for him/her to achieve their goal.
And I thought, yeah, okay. My protagonist is afraid of loss. His mom died when he was young. So maybe a close friend of his dies? How does this effect him?
I would just sit there stuck. Well, he could be mad, or sad. Maybe he’d call a friend? Have a breakdown? I don’t know. Geesh. I just couldn’t tap into the emotions. Then I had the light bulb moment.
Think expectation. Expectation is the key.
So now I look at my poor character who lost his mom and now his friend in terms of his expectations.
- Is he shocked that it happened again?
- Is he sad and resigned because he knows a person you love can be snatched away from you. (It’s happened before.)
- Is he angry at God for putting him through this again.
This is why we have to look to backstory. (which shapes character) Which emotional response is he feeling? Was he young when she passed? Is he resilient? Was he an older teen who constantly fought with his mother? (guilt and anger) Was her death sudden or drawn out? (resigned, sad, defeated, helpless)
Another example: (More plot driven)
My hero is trying to take a family to shelter during a storm. He’s strong and he knows the way. Judging by the intensity of the storm he has little time to find shelter. As they trudge through the rain and wind together they come to a downed tree across the road blocking their way. How does the hero react? My answer-what are his expectations?
Did he think he had enough time to get where he needed to go? Then he might be pissed off at himself for miscalculating and endangering his charges.
Downed trees don’t bother him. He’s prepared. He carries an axe. It’s all about smashing that tree.
Does he have a back-up plan, an alternate route? Because its all about staying calm and in control.
We don’t really know the answer until we know some of his back story. Is he young and relatively inexperienced? Has he traveled in bad weather with companions, but never alone with people depending on him?
In that case, he might be really scared but putting on a brave face. And yes, in the end our hero manages to save everybody…almost.(The family pet just didn’t make it.)
In my example, you can see how the hero’s backstory influences the current event and triggers his emotional response based on his expectations.
I listed some examples of expectations below based on society and society’s moral code. Think about what happens when the expectations are “not met” or broken. Think about what happens when the ideals you have been taught are not honored by the world at large.
- your spouse will be faithful,
- your kids will listen to you,
- your parents will be on your side (Okaaay, then. So many books based on family dramas its not funny.)
- you will get the job you really, really want,
- if you work hard you will get ahead,
- you will be paid your worth (Lots of conflict here. I mean who wants to be overlooked for a promotion?)
- your friends will be loyal
- the person you date will be monogamous
- your love will be reciprocated
- your best friend’s girl/guy is off limits
- your date is off limits to your best friend
- if you wait in line, you will get your turn
- someone will say God bless when you sneeze. (seems inconsequential, but aren’t you let down when nobody says God Bless.)
(The social section is a minefield of conflict. Think about how you feel when you’re the first to stop at stop sign and the other guy goes ahead of you. Irks you, no? It irks me. The social convention says you go first. This is the expectation you have based on the the rules of the road. )
The unspoken promise as expectation. (emotional expectation or the hype in your character’s head)
“Did he say he was taking you to the dance?”
“Well, no, but he hinted at it.”
“Did you get the job?”
“The HR guy said I was a shoo-in,” he sighed, looking at his phone again.
“Did she say she would meet you here?”
“You don’t understand, it was the way she looked at me.”
My goodness. The world is a minefield of expectation. And the great part about expectation is everyone reacts differently when it is challenged. My hero may stay calm. Yours might become angry. Throw some personality traits in there and you have a witches brew of characterization.
So from now on when I think about my character, I’m going to think about his experiences (backstory) and what his expectations (world view)are based on them.
And we are not talking about skill sets. (for backstory) Like he’s had military training. Sure he knows how to use a gun and he’s proficient with it. Yes, I absolutely expect him to know how to use gun. But, what happens if his gun jams, or misfires, or breaks during a conflict, or at the shooting range, or during a safety demonstration…then what? How will he react? (That’s not something he expects.)
His backstory should let us in on something emotional. Something that left an emotional impression on him. (perhaps an emotional wound, wink wink)) Something that would change his expectations about the world. And when I say world I mean people, or organizations made up of people. That’s right, because its all about people.
Think about it. I don’t care if he distrusts cops,(his partner betrayed him or was arrested by accident) the government, (IRS took his house) women,(someone broke his heart and took his money) the elderly, (disowned by his grandfather) the wealthy, (insider trading tanked his stock portfolio) his neighbor(the guy lets his dogs pee all over his lawn).
Not every conflict engenders a strong emotional response. Sometimes you character, like in life, is just mildly annoyed and the moment passes. The degree of emotional response is important, too.
I hope this blog post has helped you look at character, backstory and emotion in a different way. I”ll probably revisit this topic as I continue my writing journey. Thanks for stopping by.