The Reverse Backstory Tool Brings Your Characters to Life

Guilded and white marble Roman Emperor with ermine cloak looks lighthearted.
This character is ready to walk right off the building. Statue of L’Empereur Romain on the front of the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Reverse Backstory Tool – Becca Puglisi

Angela Ackerman’s and Becca Puglisi’s Reverse Backstory Tool in THE NEGATIVE TRAIT THESAURUS is the perfect way to jumpstart a new story or re-animate a faded character.

It’s not an eye-color checklist. It’s a way to discover the inside workings of your character that drive your story.

Take ten minutes to see what I mean. (Download it here.)

  1. Fill in:
    • the character’s inner and outer motivations Hint: what the character wants (outer) links to why (inner) he or she wants it. In a middle grade story, maybe Penelope wants to buy school lunch (outer motivation) instead of bringing it from home. She wants to stand in line with her friends instead of sitting alone at a table waiting for them. (inner motivation)
    • the positive trait(s) that will help the character achieve his or her goal. Penelope is CREATIVE and her creative problem-solving will help her reach her goal once she thinks of using her creativity in this way.
    • the negative trait(s) that will get in the way. Penelope can be INATTENTIVE, especially by lunchtime, because there are so many things to think about.
  2. Add the character’s:
    • wound–that painful happening in the past that made them who they are today. Penelope lost her lunch money twice and once a bully took it. Now her parents won’t send her to school with lunch money.
    • lie–that automatic belief that gets in his or her way. The character must overcome this lie to grow into the hero who will triumph. Penelope believes she’s not good with money.
    • Appendix A of THE NEGATIVE TRAIT THESAURUS suggests needs and the lies characters tell about them.
  3. Feel the tension. It sounds hokey, but once you’ve filled this out, your character is fleshed out because you’ve found the inner conflict. Once you have a “want” and a “need” pushing against each other, the character is kicking and struggling to get out of your imagination and into action.
  4. THE NEGATIVE TRAIT THESAURUS and THE POSITIVE TRAIT THESAURUS are fun and inspiring ways to find your raw ingredients. You can also find traits that will lead to built-in conflict in sidekick characters and villains. With characters like these, the story energy keeps building.

Does this sound too cookbook-y to you?

At first I also thought, “Oh, no, if all writers use these tools, we’ll all be writing exactly the same stories.”

Of course that isn’t true. If you’ve ever written from a prompt in a large group, you know 30 writers will come up with 30 totally different stories based on one writing prompt. If you’ve never done it, try it. It’s eye-opening.

Actually, these writerly catalogs free up my writer’s brain and let me riff at a much deeper level. They also make it a lot more fun.

Want another example? Read Becca Puglisi’s post for 7 more ways to use these excellent tools during drafting and revision.

Have you used any of these tools before? How did they work for you?

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Stories we tell ourselves

Recently, my husband and I watched a movie version of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “WHO AM I THIS TIME?” with Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken. Christopher Walken’s character, Harry, is so shy he only talks to women if he’s “in character” in a play. No one really tries to connect with him until Susan Sarandon’s character arrives in town with the phone company. It’s an endearingly awkward tale that shows how our internal narrative affects our view of ourselves and others.

It’s a joy to watch the characters in “WHO AM I THIS TIME?” give up the old “truths” and find a way to live that’s the envy of the whole town. This is a classic way to create an interesting fictional character.

The Reverse Backstory Tool is a fun and effective way to create a character who’s ready to jump into a story and bring it alive. It’s a handy bookkeeping tool for the relationship between the character’s external and internal goals, the character traits that will help or get in the way, and the lie that the character must disprove in order to win.

Click to download a PDF of the tool Reverse Backstory Tool – Becca Puglisi

I found another example of “The Stories We Tell Ourselves” in The Church at the Well podcast series. Kevin Fitton talks about “I’m Too Busy.” He connects the leisure time research of Professor John P. Robinson (University of Maryland) and Brigid Shulte’s OVERWHELMED to the Biblical story of Mary and Martha.

The “I’m Too Busy” lie has so much potential for rich characters. Harry acts out a version in the hardware store and in the theater. He uses his activity on- and off-stage as a shield.

What are your favorite stories where characters grow and change? Have you ever rooted for a character to overcome that blind-spot?

Source: The Reverse Backstory Tool appears in Appendix B of THE NEGATIVE TRAIT THESAURUS by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

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Exploring the Imagination: Fictional Characters From Art Museums

Brochure for Zurbaran exhibit showing painting of woman in red, brocade, dress, long black hair, ivory face and a scratch that symbolizes a halo.
Art museums are treasure troves for fleshing out characters. This beautiful painting inspired a queen antagonist character in my latest work-in-progress.

See the trailer for the exhibit here:

The stunning poster drew me in for the latest exhibit in Düsseldorf’s Museum Kunstpalast. It’s called “Zurbarán: Meister der Details” [Master of Details] and features 16th-century full-size portraits by the Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664).

My first reaction to the poster was: “There she is!” She is the queen antagonist for my new middle grade work-in-progress.

The extreme contrast of ivory skin and long, black hair, the 397 pearls on the hem of her gown, and the intensity of her eyes, almost scornful–certainly assessing–give the sense that you’ve caught her attention and it may not be to your advantage.

She’s caught up her brocade gown with one, white, elegant, hand and is ready to move. She’s only paused to run her eye over you.

Only after I went into the exhibit did I realize that the tiny flaw in the canvas above her head is actually a halo. The painting’s subject is St. Casilda, not an evil queen at all.

If I borrow his St. Casilda and embroider a character for my latest middle grade adventure, I’m only following his example. The rich gown is an invention of the painter, the son of a cloth merchant, who invented the elegant fashions of his subjects based on his father’s cloth samples.

There are advantages to drawing characters from a master. The artist works in a visual medium and the character traits that are words to me, are the artist’s details of dress, expression, and gesture. The artist paints a mood with colors and light and, through his painting, I can borrow his eyes to sketch a vivid character.

If you’d like to try it yourself, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Cast an eye over the museum guards and visitors. Anyone who thinks there’s no romance to a museum guard hasn’t read FROM THE MIXED UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER (or seen Audrey Hepburn in HOW TO STEAL A MILLION). What visitors say and do in museums tells another set of stories. Sometimes I catch a moment of conscious or unconscious mimicry or hear a wonderful snippet of dialogue that helps my story along.

2. If your museum doesn’t have portraits, try a more literal use of a painting. In C.S. Lewis’s THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER, a painting of a Narnian ship turns into a portal to the imaginary world of Narnia.

3. Prep a character or two before your museum visit. The Reverse Backstory Tool is an efficient tool for working out the connection between your character’s want, need, flaw, and wound. The “Reverse Backstory Tool” appears in Appendix B of THE NEGATIVE TRAIT THESAURUS by Angela Acker and Becca Puglisi. The tool is handy to prep before your museum visit or to develop characters who’ve caught your eye in the museum.

Art museums are a treasure trove for characters. The artists have done all the work of people-watching and the paintings already express personalities and stories. It’s all ready-to-pick, so go ahead and fill the well.

Do you find art museums inspiring? What do you enjoy about them?

 

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