Backstory for characters – how to exploit it in fiction

how to use backstory - backstory for charactersBackstory is a history or background created for fictional characters in a film, television program, or a novel.

Backstory for characters is therefore an essential part of any novel. Even those written with a minimalist style–like it is the case for Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates.

Instead, in short stories the approach to backstory can vary notably—mostly depending on the length of the short story itself.

In some cases we have almost no backstory–for example because, like in Sentry by Fredric Brown, it helps create the final twist. In other cases instead backstory is used unabashedly because it is necessary to the story–Cathedral by James Carver comes to mind.

From definitions to literary quotes

When creating some backstory for your characters, I believe that you should always keep in mind these two quotes.

The first comes from On Writing by Stephen King:  “The most important things to remember about backstory are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting. Stick to the parts that are, and don’t get carried away with the rest. Life stories are best received in bars, and only then an hour or so before closing time, and if you are buying.”

The second comes instead from Sandy Vaile: “Backstory is like a flavour you can’t quite pick, lurking in the layers of a curry. You know it’s there and it enhances the flavour, but it’s intangible and fleeting. Use it sparingly!” Continue reading

The difference between character and plot driven books – and why creative writing prompts are useless

creative writing prompts Character and plot are necessary parts of any novel. But, depending on how each is approached, they can change deeply the way a novel grows under an author’s fingertips.

Novels based on plot focus primarily on the sequence of events they recount, and tend to treat characters quite superficially–often resorting to stereotypes, and steering clear of any meaningful introspection.

Instead, novels based essentially on characters put a much more emphasis on the psychology, on the reasons behind a character’s actions. They tend to explore more deeply things like causality, feelings, memory.

Character and plot -plot-driven books

To make this distinction clear, just imagine of looking at two pictures. The first shows Jack while he is kissing Alice and promising her he will never again let her down. The second instead shows Jack, drunk and angry, driving away from Alice’s place.

A plot-driven novel would just force the protagonist to kiss Alice and then leave her alone without considering whether or not such a behavior is in line with what we know about Jack. The fact is, the plot is such and Jack has to do all he is requested to do. Then from here–I mean, from the plot–the writer will try to piece together a working depiction of Jack. Usually, at best with mediocre results. Continue reading

Creative writing – Grammar resources for writers

sunset -grammar resources for writers

Your idea is like the sun, instead grammar represents the landscape. It’s in this way that creative energy is given structure.

Even if it is essential to know it quite well to express our ideas precisely, grammar can be really frustrating at times.

This is why often, when people think about creative writing, they tend to focus primarily on the creative part.

Besides, these days creativity is glamorous and in high demand.

So much so, that a creative approach to a problem, even if fruitless, is regarded more benignly than a non creative and just as fruitless one.

Of course, this makes sense. In fact, if we constantly strive to find new ideas, chances are that on the long run we’ll end up with more creative and useful ones.

For example, even if during his career Picasso realized something like 13.500 paintings–not to mention his other artworks–a large number of these paintings are now, and rightly so, gathering dust in some attic or basement.

However, it’s those relatively few that managed to change the way we can experience reality on a canvas that everybody remembers–those that changed the rules of the game.

13,500 paintings are a staggering number. A number that speaks of hours and hours spent studying, learning, experimenting. In fact, to be truly creative we need to know quite well the field we’re working in.

In this respect, a visit to El Prado museum in Madrid would make it immediately apparent that Pablo Picasso was also an accomplished painter who mastered the traditional painting techniques; not someone who, being unable to paint a decent human figure, decided it was time to ‘revolutionize’ the field… Continue reading

How to find time to read more books – 10 easy tips

No matter how hectic your days can be. With these tips on how to read more books you can go from zero to infinite. Well… almost.

time - how to read more books

I don’t know how many books I read in a year. I don’t keep count. But I do know I love reading. I love reading both fiction and non fiction books.

When I was younger and I had at my disposal tons of spare time, reading a book came natural to me. Whenever I felt like, I would just sit down in a quiet corner of the house and start reading.

Then, growing up my spare time seemed to dissolve, like morning fog under a fierce summer sun.

But my love for books never faltered, and I found that even if you have a hectic life you can manage to put under your reader’s belt a significant number of books every year.

In fact, if you really want to, you just have to think in advance and use some simple but effective tricks.

A room without books is like a body without a soul. – Marcus Tullius Cicero


1) How to read more books 101: just cut down on TV

Indeed, for some people just halving the hours they spend in front of the TV would grant them enough time to read at least a couple of books every month.

That’s 24 books in a year. For power readers it may seem like a ridiculously small number of books. But for anyone else this can be the difference between feeling guilty of cultural indolence and feeling great.

This cutting down of your TV consumption can be a difficult step to take. Because television is tempting. After all you just have to sit down and watch it.

But the difference between watching a program and reading a  book is simply too big to be ignored. Indeed, when you watch a film you’re mostly a passive user. Instead when you read a novel you’re an active user. You literally recreate within you mind the story and the world the author has imagined. Continue reading

How to write descriptive passages – the iceberg metaphor

man writing woman thinking - descriptive passages

If not well organized, descriptive passages are often at risk of turning into info dumps, so killing the pace of your novel and putting your readers to sleep.

To avoid such an unfortunate outcome and produce instead well organized descriptive passages, you need to know perfectly well what you’re describing. Both in narrative terms and in terms of factual knowledge.

This is why you have to ask yourself many different questions about the story you want to write.

Questions about your main characters as well as the secondary ones; questions about the setting; questions about the story arc, and so on.

Then you have to come up with just as many answers. If your answers are rich of details and quite articulated, good. But this is not so essential. In fact, the type of answers you need relates strictly to the type of type of writer you are. Continue reading