Monday, October 13, 2014

Character and Backstory (or “Slow down, Gotham”) by Cheryl Harper

I watch too much television. I try not to think how much more I could get done without my old friend. Gotham is a new show set in…Gotham, before the rise of the caped crusader. Young Bruce Wayne is already headed for Vigilante Avenue, but the hero of the show is Detective James Gordon.



As I yawned my way through the last episode in order to put off writing more words, I got very analytical. Why don't I like this show more?

*dons amateur critic hat*

“Too much plot.” This is a phrase from one of my most recent rejection letters. Faced with the constraints of a shorter word count and trying a new genre, I’ve crowded out my characters. And in the first episode of Gotham, we’ve already seen and “solved” the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents. Keeping up the tension, especially since we know that young Bruce Wayne eventually becomes the Batman, is tough. But this pace isn’t helping and all that action within the confines of the hour-long show (or whatever the word count is if I’m writing) means something else is being sacrificed.

“Who are you again?” Backstory info dumps are the first thing most writers are warned against. Learning to dole out the character’s history and action in the developing story is a process, for sure. Too much too soon and the reader is bored, bored, bored. Too little? The reader (or television viewer) hardly cares enough to follow along. In the case of Gotham, the cast is large. We’ve already met Jim and Bruce, Alfred, Barbara, his shady partner, countless dirty cops, most of the villains we all know from Batman’s story, and at least one new one. In three episodes. But what do we know about the hero? Not much. He’s the only straight arrow in a crooked force and the only good man in a truly dark city. I'm not quite convinced to believe in him. Not yet.

“Beginning at the beginning.” We’ve all been warned of the difficulty of prologues. Right now, Gotham feels a bit like Bruce Wayne’s prologue instead of James Gordon’s story. And that’s too bad. A police procedural focused on Gordon, what makes him such an honorable man, where the odd and odder develop over time could be interesting. Rushing the story is a problem I have to work through in every book. My first drafts are just hammering out what will happen. Then I have to go back and layer in the character development and emotion. And then my editor helps me to do the harder work, going deeper. Since that’s where the good stuff is, that’s a step that can’t be skipped.

“Happily ever after.” I like stories with hope and enough humor to make even the hard times bearable. Gotham begins bleak in every way and will obviously finish in the same manner, or what’s the Batman for? Maybe Gordon’s partner is intended to bring some humor. Slowly redeeming him could work but it’s not doing much now to give James Gordon any glimmer of hope for success. And if there’s no hope, I don’t want to keep reading…or watching.

Like James Gordon and Bruce, I'm not ready to give up on Gotham yet, but I have to get back to writing. In just a minute...

Writers, do you have any tips on working in backstory? Or making room for the characters? And if you’re watching Gotham, have I just missed the point completely?


28 comments:

  1. These are excellent points. (And there are a few of them I REALLY need to pay attention to.) But I have a hard time thinking of the two mediums (media?) in the same way. I don't watch very much, but I'm hooked on MADAM SECRETARY. One of the things I love is that it moves along constantly and still keeps me emotionally engaged. If a book moved along at that pace, I'd stop trying to keep up.

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    1. Thanks, Liz. I'm watching Madam Secretary too. So far, the mix there is good enough, particularly with her family life, that I want to keep up. I think if I can sit back and analyze the storytelling, something is not working. I feel that way about books too.

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  2. You would make an excellent critique partner, Cheryl!

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    1. Hey, thanks! I always think I need to get one of those because I need all the help I can get! It's good to know I might be able to give some help too.

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  3. Great post, Cheryl! And I definitely need to keep it in mind as I'm racing to make a deadline. I meant to watch both GOTHAM and MADAM SECRETARY, but I've missed them both! Hoping they both go to Hulu or Netflix. Like Liz, I think I'm more forgiving of a TV program that moves too fast--as long as I believe the plot is plausible.

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    1. I like fast pacing, especially in movies and television. Madam Secretary moves quickly, but not at the expense of character. I feel more connected to the characters so I want to keep up. Also, Hulu is so, so, so bad for me!

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  4. Cheryl, I think you're much better than amateur! These are all great points. I haven't see the show, and now will happily skip it. I actually don't watch enough TV, and I mean that sincerely. I think I could learn so much if I would just sit down and pay attention to some of the highly acclaimed dramas that are on right now. Not to mention that I feel completely out of the loop when people talk about TV shows (like that commercial where everyone is speaking TV language and that one poor guy doesn't know what they're talking about--that's me.)

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    1. The reason I turned on Gotham in the first place: people are talking about it. I'm an indifferent superhero viewer, but all the hype! I think about cutting the satellite now and then, but I start to hyperventilate and have to clutch my remote until I recover.

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  5. I tried to watch this show after someone recommended it, and I didn't even get through the first five minutes before I gave up. I chalked it up to not being a super big Batman fan (I like the movies, but I'm not into the franchise.) But you made some great points here, Cheryl! I'm thinking it wasn't just my lack of Batman love that made me tune out!

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    1. I'm the same kind of Batman viewer, but people are talking and I want to know. That gets me into trouble AND boring television shows!

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  6. Holy Batman! (Ha) I haven't watched the show, but I find that I take apart many of the movies I rent or buy to watch. Unfortunately I like to see or read some backstory. I want to know what brought the characters to the point where the story starts. Maybe it's because when I meet new people I like to know where they grew up an what they do for a living etc. (I know, people probably think I'm nosy) It sounds as if that show may have too many characters too early. Something else I have to watch when I write is not over-populating my shorter books. (Sigh! Writing is hard.) Good post Cheryl.

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    1. You are so right! Figuring out the balance is hard. And now that I'm writing, I have more trouble reading than I used to.If I'm looking at the mechanics, I'm missing the story.

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  7. OMG, Cheryl, we are SO much alike, LOL, both in TV watching and in reaction to this show (I actually just finished writing a column for my chapter newsletter about my disappointment in GOTHAM). My main issue was there wasn't anyone to like (I was borderline with Fish, but nope. No sale). The closest I came was with Alfred (love the actor)...but I was officially out of the show by the first 5 minutes of episode 2. SO disappointed at the loss of potential...it could have been great.

    I will say The Flash surpassed my expectations ...another superhero show that got it right (like Arrow).

    As far as back story? I took a workshop from Teresa Myers a while back and she said to take your character's back story, pretend it's a mirror and break it--then drop the shards into the story piece by piece. I try to remember that whenever I'm starting a new project especially because I'm always overdoing it with their history.

    Great post! We need to chat about shows, LOL. Happy Monday!

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    1. SO GLAD I'M NOT ALONE! I missed The Flash (because of something like a political debate for the upcoming elections...what?!) but I'm sure I'll check it out. The shards dropping in piece by piece is a good tip, something visual to help me remember.

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  8. Writer’s do it all the time – take a good story or plot and work it into something of their own. But Batman is the same plot, the same characters, the same conclusions. I liked your perspective on the subject, comparing the present Gotham on TV to what’s expected in good writing. Excellent post.

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  9. Carol, I'm with you in not watching many TV shows, and I know I need to...maybe after the next deadline. I did watch Castle, but the way that storyline has been going, I haven't even checked in to it.

    Cheryl, really good points on writing. As for backstory, I drop in small pieces, just enough to intrigue readers but enough for them to make a connection to my character. the only time I drop a good-sized piece of backstory is when the hero or heroine are sharing a painful event from their past.

    I've read that there should be no major backstory for the first 50 pages.

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    1. In my own writing, I have a hard time analyzing the mechanics so I'm not sure I ever really consider how to work in backstory, but as I do more, I think I get better. Thank goodness! :)

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  10. This is a show that my kids (who love Batman) love and my writing friends hate. Great overview as to why. And girl, you need to sit your butt in the chair and write...backstory or not

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    1. Oof...hitting me with the truth! :) Right now, I'm back at it. In just a minute...

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  11. Cheryl - I so admire your ability to analyze. I can't see into things to figure out their component parts - I just like or don't and can't always figure out why. I know I don't like unrelieved darkness, so I didn't even try Gotham. I, too, love Madame Secretary - I like the way she works things out in ways I would never had imagined. And I still love Castle - have to know where he was all that time and what happened. Backstory dumping is a criticism I get all the time - I think I try to work it in for me, so that I feel comfortable going ahead, and forget the reader probably hates it. That mirror thing is a great idea - thanks for that. I love stories that make you laugh hysterically, then rip your heart out.

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    1. I love Castle! That is a show that I never miss. And I know what you mean about the darkness. That's not entertainment to me.

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  12. Love that Teresa Myers quote about back story! Had a reviewer comment that my last story seemed rushed. A neat juggling act trying to balance required length with what's needed for characters and plot. Great post, Cheryl.

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    1. Thank you! It is hard to figure out just where the line is, and every story is different.

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  13. Great critique, Cheryl! I watch little TV. Not enough hours in a day for me. But I totally get what you're saying about overkill sometimes. When there's too much going on and too much backstory you lose what the actual plot is about. Gonna skip Gotham. I am hooked on How to get Away with Murder though. That's a good one!

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    1. I've been watching that too (of course, I have. Apparently my DVR is on overload) and most of the time my thinking is "What is going on here?" It's not like other shows!

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  14. Great points Cheryl. We don't get those shows in England but your points make good sense.i guess I need to think things through a bit more

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