Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Character's Class Schedule: History

History: Background Information
Think of a book that takes place in a different kind of world. Far-off fantasy lands, or far-off futures. Chronicles of Narnia or Hunger Games. Pretty much any dystopian novel you’ve ever read. Any fictional world that’s very different from our own.
Now what made them turn into such a different world?
What brought two countries to the brink of war? What events turned the world into a post-apocalyptic wasteland? Where did the Creature of Ultimate Darkness come from?
Most novels at least touch on the answers to questions like these. Some devote a whole book to the subject. (Want to know how the world of Narnia came to be? Just read The Magician’s Nephew!)
There are stories that played out before Chapter 1, nestled someplace between the front cover and the first sentence. Stories that shaped the world into a perfect setting for the rest of the story. The author can’t always go into these histories, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t present.
A word here. A sentence there. A battered old memorial in the square of a city called War-torn. All of these things and more can allude to the stories that came before, and show the reader those reasons that rest below the surface.
Cliché Example Time: Elves and Dwarves hate each other.
Long ago, elves tired of the dwarves chopping down forests to get the lumber they needed for tunnel supports and tool handles. The elves stole all the dwarves’ equipment (along with a wealth of jewels and precious metals that the dwarves kinda want back) and began to guard the forests.
To get revenge, the dwarves stormed the forests and burned them down out of spite. Then the elves collapsed the dwarves’ tunnels. With that, the two races launched into generations of retaliation, hatred, and revenge.
But in our story, all the readers need to know is that they hate each other and believe they have legitimate reasons for hating each other (nothing should be pointless, kiddies).
We can get this across simply by using the following:
In an argument, a dwarf calls an elf a greedy, selfish, wood-hoarder.
In retaliation, the elf calls the dwarf a murderous forest-torcher.
The argument comes to a peak when the dwarf demands the return of the Ancient Stolen Jewels of Power.
With just three lines of dialogue, we already start to get the impression that there’s been an extensive, continuing conflict between these two races. We did it more or less without infodumping, and it gives the reader a better reason for these prejudices than “Uh, um… Because I said so” or “Because I need it for my plot to work.”
How does this relate to characters?
Sometimes they need to learn their history, too, just as much as the reader. Many fictional characters have rather unorthodox educations, if they have any at all. Some have led pretty sheltered lives, some may be familiar with certain aspects of history but not everything, and some perhaps just didn’t care enough to learn.
Does everyone in our world know of the events that led up to the American Revolution? Does everyone know how the American Revolution effected governments in countries around the world, like France? (Vlogbrothers provides a handy explanation of the French Revolution. :) )
Whether you’re discussing the real world or a fictional world, events in the past shape events in the present, which is why it’s so important to remember the past. Not to mention the whole idea of history repeating itself.
A layered history can add so much depth to a story, and to a world, and to a character. I mean, hello, Darth Vader and Gollum, anybody?
It can even add to a character’s motivations. Which character is more likely to fight for her people? An elf who hates dwarves  ‘because she’s supposed to’? Or an elf who hates dwarves because she knows how much injustice and death and cruelty there’s been in the past?
And, just another little hint: If your main character’s motivations are strong, that might help your reader’s motivations to keep reading.
Homework Assignment: Think about the world (or character) of your novel and think about how it got the way it is at the time of your story. Then write a summary/short story/ballad/whatever about that history. :)
This concludes our first lesson in a Character’s Class Schedule. What did you think? Good, bad? Helpful or not? I welcome your feedback as I try to work out my blogging style. XD I’m also still looking for suggestions of other classes that characters seem to take often, or any other subjects you’d like me to cover during this series.
I also welcome your feedback on how I should schedule this kind of thing. I’m posting this a day after the announcement because the announcement wasn’t exactly a blog post, but what kind of interval should there be between the other three? Every other day? Two days in-between? Any suggestions you have there would be more than welcome. :)
Thanks for reading! ^^


  1. Well, teacher, I think your first lesson was very well planned. I like it. And I'm off to complete my first assignment. I just have to decided which WIP to do it about...

    To answer your question(s), I think you should give me a few days. Haha. Classes start tomorrow and I have a newspaper to work on. But it's whatevs.

  2. I think it definitely shows, those who know their characters backgrounds and those who don't.

    The ones that do tend to sprinkle the information throughout the piece, reminding us that we aren't part of that world, but not info dumping the whole thing.

    Those that don't....It shows throughout their novel, because the reader is constantly wondering what everything looks like, where this talent came from, where did this sudden compassion come from.

    As for the blog posts...Maybe, twice a week, to make sure you don't lose your readers somewhere along the way?

    Love this!

  3. I can't say that I'll be doing the homework - I have a hard enough time getting myself to write what I want to write! - but I definitely like what you wrote here.

    I read this several days ago and I've been thinking about it ever since. And you helped pin down for me why I was dissatisfied with a book I just finished - it's because there's nothing in the main character's background that supports why he did anything he did.

    I will definitely be keeping all of this in mind if I can ever get my mind to focus on one of my novels...

  4. Thanks, guys. ^^ Comments make me smile wide enough to be glad that my family isn't watching me on the computer. XD

    And yeah, the homework is totally optional. XD More extra credit than anything else.

    Twice a week sounds pretty good... Maybe even on more normal occasions, eh? But I think I'll also be posting a kind of bonus thing tonight. Nothing to do with the Back to School Series, but... Well. You'll see. ^^

    Thanks for the comments everybody. ^^ Keep writing!