How to record a ‘life-story’

I am getting a little bit bored with the narrative ‘life-story’ of my characters now. It was interesting to begin with, but now it is increasingly frustrating to have to know the details about how they would react in certain situations when those circumstances may never appear in the novel. I really just want to be able to get on with writing it: but I still haven’t reached the point in my protagonist’s story where her future behaviour is explained sufficiently for me to really communicate any understanding of it.

In order to try and maintain some momentum and reinvigorate my motivation I decided to take a more methodical approach. I always find that when I am lagging and losing interest in things if I alter the means by which I am tackling the task I become more involved in it and more capable of completing them. So, I decided to chart my character’s thoughts and feelings throughout their life in a table. Yes, it sounds ultimately dull and unimaginative, however it is enabling me to properly understand my character’s motivations and interpretations of events within the novel.

I’ve started with a basic overview: Event – Feelings – Thoughts – Other Notes. Then, I fill in the blanks based on each major event that occurs in the life of that character. How did they feel at the time – Happy, sad, frustrated or confused, or a multitude of conflicting emotions? What did they think – how did they make sense of what had happened, how do they see the situation? Then, in the other notes section I summarise my own take on it, how it might contribute to the overall plot, what other character’s might feel/do in response, if there is a link that needs highlighting.

I’m not sure how much it is going to help me in the long run, but it has got me focused back on the task of getting to know my characters – even if I am going over old ground listing the events I already know about, rather than ploughing ahead with the more complex happenings I’m been stuck on. The good thing is that once I’ve done it then I will have something to refer back to, to build on, to remind me of what I envisiged for each character when I was at this point in the planning process. It will probably take quite some time, but it is worth doing I think. The way I see it is that: No one said it was going to be easy. If it were easy we’d all be doing it, but I want to be one of the ones who at least attempted the challenge of it all.


3 responses to “How to record a ‘life-story’

  1. Thanks for your comments guys: it does seem like a lot of work, but I’ve been enjoying the process. It’s allowing me to understand my main character much better and right now that is what I need in order to be able to write the next section of the novel. For the story to work her motives need to be clear to me, and before this I was really struggling with what she might be thinking – possibly also because the novel is not written from her point of view.

    The backstory stuff is just for me: it’s really brought out the themes I have been exploring and I’ve realised a lot of the story has interlinking elements that I must subconciously have woven into the sub-plot. I would never want to reveal it all in the story – part of the joy of reading is getting to know the characters for yourself, not having the author define them in detail before you can decide to like them or not.

    I guess the mechanical, processive stuff that I’m describing above might appear to be laboursome and long-winded, but I actually like process-driven activity sometimes. At the moment my creativity is stifled somewhat, and I can’t seem to write fluidly in order to conrtibute to the plot: so this exercise is getting me in the character’s head and keeping me in the novel, so to speak. I certainly wouldn’t recommend this approach to everyone, and I might not even stick to it myself, but for the moment it’s an experiment to try and get my mind focused so I can write with clarity and conviction when I do go back to it.

    In the meantime, thanks for reading: hope you stick with me – I could use all the advice and support I can get!
    Take Care

  2. Hi, Cat. For me, writing too much about my characters (i.e. backstory) takes away some of the surprise and discovery I make when I am writing the actual story. I do a kind of profile for them–description, history, etc. and have a basis for their personality and character and then see what happens as the story goes along. No, its not easy, but it shouldn’t be all work. Its supposed to be fun (you are having fun, right?). Also, remember you get to rewrite once the first draft is done. You aren’t going to get it all right the first go around.

  3. i can only speak for what works for me of course, but that would seem like a lot of extra work. it might cause you to feel that you’ve got to work as much of that information as possible into your story. that’s a lot of backstory that might just clog up your thoughts. also, the more you do, the more you have to worry about possibly having two different things taht contradict each other.

    but that’s me. i’m only me.

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