Thursday, June 10, 2010

What makes a backbone character

Who is my backbone character?

A backbone character is the character in your story who plays the most cohesive role and binds one end of the story to the other. Without the backbone character, the story can't succeed; in fact, when I can't identify my backbone character, I can't even manage to finish a first draft.

Here's the tricky part. A backbone character is usually your main character - but isn't always.

Sometimes a character will appear spontaneously in your head and start telling his or her story, and you'll write it down, then look back and say to yourself, "Gee, that wasn't difficult." Other times, it will be less clear who's holding this story together. Several factors may make identifying the backbone character difficult.

1. You have a story situation in your head, not a person.

If you know more about the world and the danger situation than about a character in the situation, try to zoom in. Figure out who it is who stands to gain most in that situation, by taking risks and possibly losing everything if they don't drive through all the way to the end. Make the situation personal, and you'll have found your backbone character.

2. Your main character isn't doing much "protagging."

Sometimes you can be sure that you know who your main character is, but that person doesn't seem to get anything done. He or she spends a lot of time observing, and when the chance comes to act, typically he or she retreats from doing so. Sometimes it's that you just need to get your protagonist to be more active; other times, you should consider changing who the main character is. Still other times, it's the observer who serves as backbone because even though he or she has fewer opportunities to act, there are still other reasons why that person binds the story together in a way that others can't.

3. You have two or more characters vying for the position of main protagonist.

Choosing who your main character is can be tricky if you've got multiple protagonist points of view. Of the Hero and his Sidekick, which is the backbone character? Well, it depends on what you're trying to do with the story, and how you want its events to be interpreted by readers (as guided by the characters).

4. Your main character is too unreliable to be the primary narrator.

I'm grappling with this one right now. My main character isn't too unreliable yet, but will shortly be descending into madness, and can't serve as a cohesive influence from one end of the story to the other. Therefore, I have to have another person serving as backbone and holding the story together.

5. Your most cohesive character isn't present at the start of the story.

This one is looming in my future. It's really a revision question: I have this story and I always knew who the backbone character was, because without her to pull other elements of the story together, the whole thing would fall apart. The problem with the original draft was that I had the backbone character begin the book - but she isn't the one who starts the conflict. The other characters do that job. It has taken me years to figure out that I need to get the conflict started with the other two active characters, with their goals and stakes, and then bring in my backbone character when her influence can make a measurable change to the trajectory of the main conflict - i.e. when her role as backbone character is most strongly noticeable to readers.

The real challenge in finding a backbone character is to think through what your story is about, and what its core is really made of. The character who has goals and actions and terrible things at stake (the protagonist) may be the same one who endures through the whole thing and keeps the story connected with its core. But it's important to be aware that this isn't always the case. Especially if lots of people have goals and actions and terrible things at stake in your story (which is a good thing!), it's a good idea to think through which character serves as the central organizing influence.

Ask yourself: Who is the character who binds this story together, rather than letting goals and stakes take them off the main conflict in tangential directions? That person is the backbone character, and deserves as much attention as your main character if you want the story to work.


  1. I'm just now evaluating this issue as I prepare revisions for my current WIP... Very timely.

  2. You know, that may be the problem with my YA story. I know who the backbone character is, but despite trying to make her more active, the other two main characters keep trying to take over. (One has a very take charge sort of persona with her military training) My backbone character has less at stake, but without her, the other two would never complete their goals. And the story is supposed to be about her. Sigh. I'd give up in aggravation, but the story won't let me. (Freakin brain making up the end first.)

  3. Jaleh,
    It sounds to me like you have to tangle her up in them a bit more. Like the more involved with them she becomes, the greater her stakes and risks are, but she has to become involved with them because of X. Give her opportunities also to sway them even if they don't realize it. You might try on some different possibilities sometime - when you're not actually looking at the text itself, but thinking about the story and where it's going.

  4. So kind of make their stakes into her stakes? My backbone girl doesn't get any direct contact with the one character until the end (the meeting that inspired this whole thing and the reason I can't seem to give it up), but backbone-girl is with military-woman most of the time after they meet in chapter 2. With the way I've already developed their characters, it would work for backbone-girl to take on military-woman's goals as part of her own.

    I'm trying out plot cards for the time being. I spent the past couple days going through all my notebooks and files and nearly used up a whole pack of index cards. A few only have a scene title, and some are filled front and back with notes. I can see where the huge story gaps are now, but also that I had more created than my draft shows. (I had pages of notes and what-ifs.)

    Your suggestions are tickling ideas in my head. Now I just have to shake them out onto my cards. Thanks, Juliette.

  5. Cool, I'm glad that got you thinking. :-)

  6. Thank you again!
    This post is giving me insight into a couple of snags I've had with a WIP.

  7. What about a situation where you have a number of different characters - none of whom are really a backbone character. Is it feasible that the omniscient narrator is the "off-screen" backbone character - or do you think it's always necessary to have a backbone character.

  8. Stuart, I think you could have the narrator be the backbone, depending on how you treated it. My sense is that people want to have a feeling that they're watching a single story carry through to its end, and having a main character or backbone character is one important way of achieving this. I suppose it would be a matter of creating a sense of the larger significance of the actions of the group of characters in question, and creating a sense of drive and trajectory that readers could follow on that meta-level.

  9. Perfect timing! I'm developing characters for my WiP; this is something I must consider. Thanks for a terrific post!

  10. You're welcome, Laura. I'm glad you enjoyed it, and I hope it helps you out.