Jan 12 2009

An eccentric bit of writing advice: don’t backtrack with your characters!

Published by at 11:44 pm under Character Development,Writing Articles

“Keep the change, ya filthy animal.”  Indeed!  If your character changes in some way , it’s usually a good idea to “keep the change” rather than undo the change later on.  Backtracking often makes the characterization feel unsatisfying and usually suggests that there was no reason to make the change in the first place.  If the hero moves from psychopathic to mostly sane, it probably won’t feel right if he suddenly jerks back to psychopathic two episodes later.  (I’m looking at you, Sylar!)

In a novel or comic book, backtracking is best-handled as a major failure for the main character.  For example, it might be a decisive event that sets up the climactic struggle.  As an immature kid, Simba runs away when his father gets killed.  That sets up his return to fight Scar in the climax, establishing that he has finally become responsible.  Alternately, the hero backtracks because the hero loses at the end.  For example, if The Lion King were a dystopian tragedy about Simba failing to become mature, Simba gets hunted down and eaten by the hyenas shortly after fleeing to the desert.  That’ll teach you to try to run away from your problems!

Backtracking is generally not well-suited for traits that aren’t particularly important, or for minor characters. Backtracking tends to take a lot of space (to clear up potential confusion), so it probably isn’t worthwhile unless the character and trait are crucial to the story.

Now I’m going back to watch Home Alone.

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