Monday, December 20, 2010

Your characters offstage

Do you keep track of what your characters do offstage?

In many of my stories, I follow multiple people, through multiple times. I love epics, and I've always dreamed of successfully writing one. But, one of the biggest challenges to writing an epic isn't only keeping track of my characters when I'm writing about them. I also have to keep track of my characters when I'm not writing about them.

Has Veronica been away for six months while I'm writing about Markus and Sissy? Well, what has Veronica been doing?

I'm sometimes successful at keeping track of the offstage characters, but then there's the added challenge of figuring out how that time offstage has affected them emotionally. If Veronica was fuming mad at Markus before leaving for a year-long sabbatical in Zurich, is she still fuming mad when she returns? Or, has the time away made her forget her anger, or at least push it down into the pit of her belly so that she can seek her revenge more systematically?

For me, the best epic writers (ahem, Tolstoy) are able to account for offstage characters and their continued emotional journeys, even though we as readers don't experience it directly. This skill not only makes the characters seem more believable, but it also helps to make the world of your fiction more believable.

Oddly enough, the time when your character isn't on the stage is also an opportunity to develop them.

This weekend I watched The King's Speech written by David Seidler, and one of the vital details about Albert, the protagonist, was that he would make a better king than his older brother. The audience doesn't get to see exactly why Albert would make a better king, but based on the other characters' opinions of him, we assume that he has proven himself offstage.

I'm currently dealing with a similar situation in my current book. I'm trying to portray seven characters that are much wiser than I am, and to do that, I'm making claims that their wisdom has shown through during times that I don't actually write about. I support this by having other characters chime in about their wisdom, a technique that helps to support many character details.

We may jump through time to keep from having to include unimportant details that happen between important scenes, but that doesn't mean we can't make those spaces work for us.

Do you have an example of great things your characters did offstage? What do you do to keep track of it all?


  1. I think in some ways this is harder to pull off in my genre. When you're writing anything akin to a thriller, too much off-stage action and development often feels like a cheat, just shy of a deus ex machina.

    It can be done, but it's usually counter-productive and often unsuccessful.

    The most obvious times I've had major off-stage development were probably when I was writing fantasy or sci fi and would have a captivity scenario. I usually followed either the captive or the folks back home, and so there would be major emotional and psychological development off-stage of the other party.

    I admire your effort with the wisdom. Sounds like a good way to manage it, if you can pull it off, and I have faith that you can.

    Especially after having read that copy of Bread you ... sent ... me ...

  2. My stories have this all the time. I have two main characters that move in the shadows. So stuff get organized without them being made apparent until the results are about to show up. Kind of. It's sort of difficult to explain.


  3. I do try to keep track of my characters offstage, and it's something I'm working on right now. To do it well, I think you have to go beyond people saying simple things like "He sure helped us out", yet stop short of writing an entire story about events that happened outside of your current story, if that makes sense.

    Anyway, good luck with the wise men. Make a star or something.

  4. Interesting topic. It's something I've thought about lately.
    I know I should do more of this, and it's something I plan to incorporate in future drafts.

  5. Davin, I agree with Nevets. It depends on what kind of book you're writing. A lot of this, for me, depends on the character's motivations and placement in the story. There are so many things you could incorporate from where a person has been and what has happened. Knowing me, if I put too much into that I'd make every offstage happening a huge dramatic affair, which isn't very realistic. Still, depends on the type of book.

    Did you send Nevets Bread? I have a feeling he'll devour it. ;)

  6. Nevets, As I was writing this post, it occurred to me newly that this sort of consideration might be specific to some genres, so it's interesting that you feel the same way. I think maybe it comes down to the extent of what you can do.

    Nevets 2, I know, I know. I should make some joke about the dough rising, but really I just haven't gotten my act together to order additional copies.

    Misha, That's cool that you are doing this all the time. Based on your description, I'm imagining elves creeping about the house, but that's probably not what you're writing about.

    Justus, that's a good point. This has to be done in some sort of graceful way...and maybe that's what I'm having trouble with. For me, it's a relatively new consideration, so I'm hoping it gets easier with experience. The wise people are both men and women. There's even a little boy.

    Andrew, I hope it works out for you. Let us know if you have any tips.

    Michelle, that's funny. Yeah, as I play this this technique, I'll probably have way too many major things happening off stage too. I was worrying about that last night. We must calibrate!

    Yes...I sent Nevets Bread...It's on the way...I sent it on the backs of a trail of ants, so it might take awhile. At first I wasn't sure the little ants could do it at all, but it is a novella, rather than a novel, and ants can lift at least 50 times their own weight.

  7. That's funny, Davin. He should get it by the year 2015, when, of course, it will have been on shelves winning the Pulitzer for 2 years. I hope you put a bag of bread crumbs on top for the ants. :)

  8. The bread crumbs were part of the problem. They just went around in circles for a few hours.

  9. I'm sure it's well on its way now! If those ants only knew the multiple meanings of bread in your story...

  10. My stories tend to be fairly constrained and stay focused on a small group of characters. There's the bit in "Killing Hamlet" where the prince's story shears away from Horatio's for a few chapters, but that's about it. But generally the narrative follows the protagonist and people don't so much go away and come back changed.

    But, I do write out (brief) story arcs for all the main characters in my books, so I do know what's going on with them over the course of the story. Of course, I'd only have a character go away and come back to serve a dramatic purpose and I've have their changed state upon their return already planned, probably. I'm a control freak like that.

  11. For some reason, I have the inescapable image of a 19th century English novel. In the first chapter we meet Uncle Earnest who must off to Zanzibar.

    Then, in the thirteenth chapter of the second part of the book, we are reunited with Uncle Earnest who has meanwhile got sidetracked and assumed governorship of Ceylon, making our main character's travels safe and possible to everyone's surprise.

    Or something.


    Given Bread, flies might have been more suited than ants.

  12. You know, I've never really thought of it that way, but I guess the backstory we writers seem to always struggle with could be those "off-stage" moments that are alluded to, sometimes overly revisited, but never directly shown.

    I'd say what I'm writing now is centered almost entirely on what happened--with every one of my characters but especially the protagonist--off-stage.

    I think it's tricky creating conflict and building a lot of action around a story this way...unless you have some event that forces your characters to deal with what took place off-stage. Character development has to come, I think, from how they react to their new circumstances. So the reader can decide--no matter how awful those off-stage moments might have been--what the true moral fiber of that character is.

  13. Scott, I have mapped out character arcs for all of my characters too. I usually do this after I've done a couple of drafts first, then I try to see if the arc is already there.

    Ashley, You're basically describing my first novel, Rooster. I had much of the conflict happen off stage, but as the book evolved, I saw the need to bring more of it onstage, through flashbacks, and then through forces that made my characters deal with the offstage stuff. I agree, it's hard. Rooster never quite worked out for me in the end.

  14. GREAT stuff to ponder and put in a novel! I just read another blog post on this recently, too. I need to do more thinking about it, because what the other characters have been doing meanwhile will affect the way they appear back onstage. Important!

  15. Good points. I always forget to figure out what my offstage characters are doing. And then I try to bring them back in and I realize I don't have a clue where they've been.

  16. Too funny, I was just thinking of this yesterday! I make notes [g] Sometimes that stuff even weaves its way into the novel at some point...


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