This post was originally published at Novelicious.com and is now at WritingTipsOasis.com. WritingTipsOasis.com acquired Novelicious.com in June 2022.
by Anna Bell
Sometimes I think being an author is a bit like being a spy. No, I'm not talking about eavesdropping on other people's conversations (although that can be good for research – ahem), I'm talking about when it comes to back story. A good spy creates a legend for their undercover persona, and it’s not dissimilar to what an author should do when creating a character.
When you watch spies going undercover in films and on tv, they know their cover story backwards and forwards so that their true identity is not revealed. And that's what authors need to do, too. They need to think about every element of the character so there’s no possibility of getting caught out by the reader.
Creating a solid backstory is a must, whether you make the reader privy to it or not. No matter how much if the backstory makes into the novel, the character will still have been shaped by what has happened to them in the past. Previous heartbreaks, divorced parents, a stint at boarding school … whatever has happened to your character before you present a snapshot of their life, it is important you know. A small reference to what's happened to them before the reader meets them, helps them to appear a more rounded person.
Then there are the little details. In some spy films spies are put in jeopardy when a tiny error is made – an incorrectly recalled detail for example. This happens in novels, too; someone's eye colour changes, or the name of a great aunt changes according to the chapter. Yes, they might be details that are flippant or irrelevant to the plot, but those details can also be jarring to readers who pick up on them.
So how do you, as an author, channel your inner spy?I usually think I'm good at remembering stuff and that I don't need to make note of incidental facts. Only when I get my manuscript back from my copy editor there’s always stuff I have got wrong. Usually things that have changed between chapters. So, each time I start a novel, I always vow to keep a crib sheet for my characters, and every time I fail miserably. I usually jot down the physical description and leave it at that. But next time I’m going to make better notes. It may seem like extra writing when you’ve already planned your novel, and you are desperate to just get stuck in, but by creating a legend and starting a crib sheet I’m sure it will help you get inside the character’s head.
I already complete a timeline crib sheet in order to keep track of what’s going on. It helps create a realistic timeframe of events and, despite you not necessarily telling your reader any of the days or dates, at least you have them straight in your head – and helps you refer back to events in novels (e.g it was two weeks since I’d last seen him …). Again, it’s an extra thing to be doing whilst writing. I usually do mine during my first edit. I scan through each chapter picking out the references of time and plotting them on a timeline. From there I tidy up the dates and make sure they are right and then use that on the next edit – tinkering with the timeframe to get it straight.
Whilst a good editor will spot all of these mistakes (hopefully) before publication, it helps you as an author to get into the habit of channelling your inner spy and getting your story straight – just in case something is missed and you’re found out by a reader.
Do you create a legend and keep crib sheets for your novels?