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M. Ruthless

I just found this blog recently, and I am finding a lot of good advice within your entries. I am working on my first novel, and I have to admit that my biggest deficiency is in the details. This flaw includes failing to give texture to the worlds I build via sensory detail as well as fully realizing my characters with something as simple as their physical appearance.

With that said, I really appreciate your earlier post about "periscope writing," because I think I needed someone to tell me that it may occasionally be necessary to set out with the specific goal of fleshing out a setting with sensory details. In large part, once I know where I want to take a story, plot-wise, I have a real hard time not rushing from plot point to plot point and to the conclusion. I think the periscope writing entry will help me to focus more on taking my time and really allowing my readers to look around at where they are and what they are experiencing.

After going over the sections I have already written towards my novel, I have already found several areas where the scene would be a lot more rich and satisfying if I stopped and took the time to fill in such details.

Additionally, this entry on backstory is helpful as well, because the novel that I am writing centers around two separate characters in two very distinct settings, and both settings and both characters require a lot of explanation.

I worry about giving too much backstory in flashback or as narrating exposition, because these techniques are often construed, respectively, as too easy and boring and clumsy. After reading this post I am inspired to go back to my character sheets and develop the two main characters a bit more fully. I think I will also employ the resume exercise idea, so that backstory can come out as needed in bits and pieces as the story progresses instead of out of a perceived need to give the reader all the information up front. Also, the better I know a character, the easier it is for me to both give the reader information about him or her as needed and the easier it is for me to have the character respond to any situation in a manner that I perceive as most consistent with the character I am trying to create. It is hard sometimes to remember that literate audiences are intelligent and capable of picking up on subtle impressions, and I believe that this resume exercise could be a good way of giving my audience the credit they are due for still wanting to read a book in this day and age.


Delighted that you're finding the posts helpful. Periscope writing is really just a way of letting your subconscious writer show you the world and people you're trying to bring to life. You're not worried about plot points (though you may spot some good ones through your periscope), just about the look and feel and smell of your characters' world.

Another technique that's sometimes useful is to write a passage "by" a character in the first person, describing some traumatic, life-changing event. Even if the character is one who'd drop dead rather than write such a confession, the passage can teach you a lot about the character's emotional makeup and motivations.

I did this with Mike Henderson of Henderson's Tenants, and was surprised, maybe shocked, to discover how emotionally repressed he was, and how angry at his ex-wife. I'd thought he was just a pretty calm, collected guy.

rick crawford

Very helpful! I am working on backstory too. And my story is about a hero as well. Except my hero is a superhero insect.


I put a lot of thought into backstory as part of the overall process of story creation as well, and it’s one of those “chores” which is frequently very helpful.

Creating complex, believable characters is somewhat compromised by the need to tell the story; I’ve created plenty of characters that have no dimension, no heft – they’re usually drawn with broad strokes that are nothing more than traits (the drunk, the whore, the innocent). But they served a purpose at some plot point or other, creating tension and conflict, offering a solution or resolution… I use them out of necessity, not because I really like (or hate) them and want to spend any more time on them.
However, if I spend time developing the back story of these automatons, it makes their brief (but necessary) appearances a bit more believable… because I believe in them, too. I’m always amazed when I start to fill in the blanks (as per the resume example) what interesting characters they really are; some of that writing has spun off into other projects.

I’m surrounded by characters. The people I observe all around me, everyday, provide fodder for the characters in my stories. I tend to categorize when I meet people: physical looks and overall appearance, speech patterns, body language, tics, mannerisms. Tall, South Georgia drawl, defensive, shifty eyes, wipes the back of his neck. I wish I could say that I store it all away and access all that information when I want to, but it’s more like a mulch pile. I can dig around in the pile and pull together characters who are amalgamations of people I’ve observed… nothing special there, I’m sure we all do that as well, consciously or not.

That’s the surface stuff. But why is he defensive? What part of South Georgia? As I answer these basic questions, the profile starts to pull together. One of my favorite things to do is to talk to the characters, start a dialogue, almost like a journalist interview. I’ve been shocked at what some of them have been up to in my head all this time! But the stories give me good idea of how best to use them.

Naturally I spend more time developing the back stories of main characters. I’m generally interested in working out any and all connections they have with the other major and minor characters, especially in a complex plot. I might not need that information but it is sure good to know. And I’ll really dig into the psyche of my main characters; I find that the better I know them, the better I can hear their voice, the more believable the dialogue and actions will be and the better they’ll serve the story.

It’s a lot of work. But you’re right, Tolkien knew the inner-most workings of Middle Earth, and that made Middle Earth more visceral and tantalizing. It’s one of those works where the history that’s hinted at in the main body is as much, if not more interesting, than the story.

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