I’ve often talked about how stories are about change. Even the simplest story will “arc” by ending up someplace different from where it started.
As a pantser (one who writes by the seat of their pants), I joke about how I use this knowledge of arc to “plan” my romance stories (where happy endings are mandatory):
“If point B is happy, point A must be… (all together now) …sad or unfulfilled in some way.”
Unless we’re writing a story with only a plot arc, our characters will go through an arc as well. In the case of our characters, showing a change means they:
- learn something over the course of the story — and/or —
- are able/willing to do something at the end that they couldn’t do at the beginning.
With all the recent guest posts here in Kris Kennedy’s fantastic series on Must-Read backstory, we might wonder how our characters’ backstory plays a role in their arc of change. Today, Kris is back with her final post in the series to answer how backstory actually creates the opportunity for a character arc.
Please welcome Kris Kennedy! *smile*
Crafting Must-Read Backstory:
By Kris Kennedy
We’ve been talking about how to turn backstory into Story fuel.
In Key #1 (“Make It Compelling”), we talked about how to craft compelling backstory to build characterization, ramp up internal stakes, and add tension.
In Key #2 (“Single Defining Moment”), we talked about the importance of crafting a Single Defining Moment for your protagonist, which will tap on the reader emotions and build character motivations.
In Key #3 (“Layer It”), we talked about adding layers to the emotions your character has as a result of the Single Defining Moment. This is a huge help with plotting.
In Key #4 (“Make Plot Tap Backstory, Hard”), we talked about how to intertwine plot and character to build powerful arcs and plots.
Today, let’s dive into a last key to Must-Read Backstory.
End State & Opening State Are Mirrors Of Each Other
Set the end state for your character at the opposite end of the continuum from where they begin the story, in terms of beliefs, emotions, and actions (i.e. what they can and/or are willing to do).
How do we use our character's backstory to show their growth? @RomWriteLab shares her insights Click To TweetThe time continuum we’re talking is Chapter One vs. Act III.
The character we see in these two places must be different in some huge, fundamental way.
It doesn’t have to be ‘huge’ in terms of external stakes. You don’t need an end-of-the-world plot.
You do need an end-of-the-person-I-was story. The change must be huge in terms of internal change:
Who I Used To Be (Chapter One) vs. Who I Have Become (Act III).
Make these states a mirror.
A Mirror of What?
There’s one essential thing that must change to create this mirror. One reverse ‘image’ you must create.
Check out @RomWriteLab's tips for making our character's backstory play into our story's ending Click To TweetIt is how they view their Single Defining Moment. Or rather, how they view themselves now, as a result of what they’ve gone through in the story.
They get this insight in/after the All Is Lost/Black Moment.
This insight/change fuels new action in Act III. Something they never would/could have done in the opening of the story.
This is what gives you your mirror image.
How Does Their Insight Affect Them?
The lessons from the past relate directly to what the plot is forcing them to face in the here-and-now…and they finally ‘get it.’ They see the ‘old way’ is not enough to get them what really matters.
They ‘get it’ now.
And they must change.
Armed with this insight, they find the strength/ability to do something they never would/could have in Chapter One. i.e. They act differently in Act III.
What unfolds in Act III is, in some central way, a mirror image of the person your protagonist was in Chapter One.
Summary of 5 Keys
Go craft some powerful backstory!
- Make the events of the past compel your character to actions on the page—find big things and little things;
- Give them a single defining moment;
- Develop core beliefs and emotions and guiding principles as a result of that Single Defining Moment;
- Give those beliefs and emotions a second, deeper layer of pain, one they may be hiding even from themselves;
- Make the plot events tap on those beliefs and emotions, escalating as you go;
- Ensure what your protagonist has to do in Act III is unimaginable in Chapter One, so it’s a mirror image of who they used to be.
That’s how you make a hero. And how you make readers buy your next book.
Ready to Learn More?
I hope you loved this series on Must-Read Backstory! I run Romance Writing Lab, a craft-focused writing website. We’re powering up online courses and workshops, and hosting a Romance Writers Summit, focusing on the craft of writing powerful fiction, with a focus on romance.
And it’s free to register!
To get all the details about the Summit, including free registration for over 20 video interviews with craft experts, check out the Romance Writers Summit website. (Or get ongoing access to those videos even after the Summit ends with special pre-Summit pricing while you’re on the site too.)
If you want personalized attention with your stories, contact me for story coaching or developmental editing!
And have fun in there!
Yours in Story,
Kris Kennedy is a USA Today bestselling romance author, story coach, freelance editor, owner of Romance Writing Lab & host of the craft-focused Romance Writers Summit (launching Fall 2019). She’s taught for Romance Writers of America, multiple online writing chapters, Writer University, and Savvy Authors.
- To check out her books: kriskennedy.net
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- To get personalized attention for your stories, contact Kris for story coaching or developmental editing!
Thank you, Kris! I’ve loved this whole series, and this is a great wrap up of how to apply our new knowledge. *smile*
This series is also helpful for the issue of showing vs. telling. It’s easy to tell readers that our characters have learned and changed, but that feels superficial and won’t make for a satisfying story for readers because they might not trust the change will last.
This last post from Kris is the key to how we can show that our characters have changed beyond just the temporary. If our character now thinks differently about their Single Defining Moment or about what they’re now willing/able to do, we’ve shown their growth.
A change in their willingness or attitude or how they think and approach problems goes deeper than just a superficial proclamation of change. The mirrored thoughts, attitudes, behaviors, and situation our character finds themselves in at the end of our story are more substantial—and evidence of a lasting change. As Kris said, we’re showing how they’re no longer the same person they were.
Although we don’t need to use our character’s backstory to first come up with their arc (as there are many ways to build a character arc), it should be part of our development process. And as a bonus, a more satisfying character arc often leads to a more satisfying story for readers. *smile*
Have you ever used a character’s backstory to brainstorm a character arc before? Do you think about showing how a character has changed at the end? Does it help to think of creating a mirror image of their thoughts, behaviors, or situation? Do Kris’s insights give you other ideas for using backstory in your writing? Do you have any questions for Kris?Pin It