June 2009

Are fathers necessary? 

 I’m quite fond of mine, but I’m talking about fiction here. If a character’s father doesn’t appear, isn’t referred to, how much do we need to know about him?

 Back when I started writing, a Writer’s Digest article introduced me to the idea of drafting up a character background sheet detailing everything you need to know about them, and then some. The article writer, a romance novelist, insisted you had to know much, much more about the character than ever appeared on the printed page because that way they’d be more real and more complex (or something to that effect).

 I couldn’t help noticing, though, that in a sample character list from her own work, she’d brushed off her protagonist’s family history with a note that “parents are unimportant to the plot.” In fact, I’m not sure there were any details on the list that wouldn’t figure into the plot.

 So how much do we really need to know about our characters’ families? Or their hobbies, their reading material, their favorite TV show, and whether they like Thai food mild or spicy. If it doesn’t appear on the page or affect the plot, does it really make our characters more complex, or is that a comforting illusion (“My character had a lot more depth than you think, so there!”)?

 And my answer would be a big, strong firm “It depends.”

 In the book I’m working on now, I know about Dani’s father because he’s a huge influence on how she sees life, her choice of a career and her love life. All I know about Steve is that he was blue-collar; since Steve’s an orphan, that’s all I needed. Gwen is shaped by her antagonism to her mother, and she’s a well-developed enough character I don’t think my knowing about her father would add anything.

 Generally, I use character sheets, but I never draft them up until after I’ve written a couple of drafts. I can’t build backstory in a vacuum: I need to know who the characters before I can figure out where they came from. That’s something I’ve never been able to figure out in advance.

 And of course, once the backstory is built, if I’m doing it right, I’ll get fresh ideas for the characters and the plot. And then I’ll tinker with the characters some more.

 Sometimes that means fathers acquire an importance they didn’t have at the start: I didn’t develop Dani’s father until I realized her character didn’t work and I needed a different background (a strong father who set high goals for her and steered her into medicine) to make her click for me.

 Are father’s necessary? Like I said, it depends … just don’t mention to my dad that I said that, OK?

*you can visit Fraser Sherman’s blog at http://frasersherman.wordpress.com/

Fun times!  I’m participating in the Drollerie Press Blog Tour, which means I’ll be hosting a different author and a different author will be hosting me to talk about fathers (the topic changes from month to month).  I’m a big fan of the DP blog tour, and I highly encourage everyone to go check it out.  The links will be listed on the main-page of the website this weekend, and here’s a link.  Have fun!  I’m sure I will ^_^ -EGD