Trauma in Character Back Stories Part 2: “Real” Fiction

So, for those who read part one of this little discussion, you’ll recall I didn’t list my d20 RP characters since I might make them original at some point. That kinda raises the question of what modifications need to be done (focusing on the back story) to the character to make them appropriate for fiction.

To begin with, they are almost guaranteed to have too much horror in their history. Part of creating RP characters is having just the right level of horror where you give the DM (dungeon master) or GM (game master) and your fellow RPers enough to work with, and not so much that the Ms screw you over. It’s a balance I am admittedly still working on. Point remains, too much of what shapes them happens in the back story, not enough in the present of the story (or at least, nothing you can use. No stealing story from the M’s!). Most of the conflict of their core is settled, or settled enough that changing it would be harder than most writers want to deal with. There’s also the tedious issue of explaining all of that back history. I have about nine spreadsheets in Bevan’s excel file just trying to keep that mess straight. If I had to explain it to somebody verbally, or worse try and convey it all in one story, I would bash my head against the wall in frustration. It’d be half the book, which is absolutely no fun to the reader. They want conflict in the present, not internalization of the past.

At the same time, there is that dreaded pit trap of the Mary Sue. Us fanfic writers are already familiar with her and her various cousins. Trust me, in original fiction, she is just as annoying. She either has the perfect life, which is boring, or she whines constantly (or is angry–all the time) over her past…which is also boring. Real people have some little tragedies, maybe one or two big ones, in their histories, and some of that is very dependent on age, that’s fact. Your character will feel flat without them as well. But there should be a level of moderation, especially the younger your protagonist is.

Example of way too much (using a since-revamped fanfic character): Amy’s mother abandoned her and her father and sister when she was young, her sister (her identical twin sister at that) constantly out shone her, her sister then had a boyfriend who would rape Amy when he was drunk and she stayed quiet to protect her sister, after the boyfriend died in a car accident, her twin commits suicide, her father withdraws entirely from the world, and eventually he dies in the same car accident that, incidentally, she discovers actually killed her (yep, she’s dead and she doesn’t even know it), leaving everything to the same mother who abandoned Amy. And she’s 17.

…I am not above admitting I was once a stupid writer. But I’ve grown since then. As you can see, I just kept piling on the angst-material, with not near enough to lighten it, and to the point of utter ridiculousness. Parts of this I did keep (no, I will not say which parts), but I also cut a lot of the “WHY ME?” material. Honestly, even for an RP character this is too much happening in the past. The key with fiction characters is to have the conflict in the present.

Example of right amount: Amy (new Amy) was raised by her grandmother. Her father and mother died when she was young, her mother from cancer and her father committed suicide. Now, her grandmother is suffering from a mental disease that her father also suffered from, leaving Amy terrified she’s going to have the same problem.

That’s it. (Okay, there’s more to the suicide, not my point.) A lot of that trauma is brought to the forefront in Amy 2’s particular novel. There’s that fear that Amy is going to have the same mental illness hounding her footstep as she deals with her grandmother, there’s the social behavior left behind from being raised by a grandparent instead of her parents. For a protagonist, it’s about the right amount of bad things to happen in the back story, though of course it all has to be balanced by good: warm memories of time spent with both her parents and her grandmother, for example.

Fiction characters are less about balancing what’s going on in the RP and with the other characters and more about what is believable by your readers while at the same time giving you material to work with when it comes to character behaviors and other quirks.


About Rebecca M. Horner

A spinner of yarns (of the story sort, though I do crochet...and sew, and learning to make armor...) View all posts by Rebecca M. Horner

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