Thursday, June 8, 2017

Giving our Characters More Attitude (and Less Backstory)

by Todd Allen @ToddAllenAuthor

Take your manuscript to the next level when
you add characters with attitude!
Creating memorable characters is one of the biggest challenges facing writers. Readers often forget the specifics of plots, but they always remember well-drawn characters. Jack Reacher, Hannibal Lecter, and Tom Sawyer will live forever in our memories because they share one common element: an unmistakable attitude.

I used to spend hours filling out profile worksheets for each character I used in a story. Often I became frustrated when the details I created seemed unrelated to the story I wanted to tell. While these profiles might help some writers, I never used them while writing. Eventually I scrapped the entire process and created a freeform letter written in the character’s voice. The result read like a transcript of a reality show confessional. The character spoke directly to the audience, telling only what the character wanted to share.

Within those lines I discovered my character’s attitude. I learned how she saw the world—and more importantly, herself. This information proved more useful to me than knowing where she went to school or how she ordered her eggs.

In his excellent book on writing, Story Trumps Structure, author Steven James writes, “A character with an attitude is always more interesting than a character with a history.”

Steven’s advice resonated so deeply it changed the way I introduced characters. Instead of inserting a brief paragraph of backstory (which I’d always thought was essential to understanding the character), I let the character leap into each scene brimming with attitude. I figured I could include the backstory later, after the reader understood her viewpoint.

I tried this in a manuscript titled The Keeper with a newspaper reporter convinced she possessed a unique connection with the universe. On page 273 I included a paragraph of backstory explaining how she came to this conclusion. My agent highlighted the section and recommended I cut it. Upon reflection, I agreed. By that point readers knew her so well they didn’t need the explanation. It didn’t matter what specific event had helped form her attitude. What mattered was that her attitude drove her actions through the story.

In another manuscript titled The Night Janitor, I created another major character without one word of backstory. Clyde Merritt, a YouTube-based journalist whose videos suddenly go viral, projected an attitude that surprised me. One of his chapters begins this way:

“Clyde’s basement apartment seemed too small for him now, his desk too short, the carpet too dirty and cheap for a man of impending wealth and celebrity. He glanced at his e-mail inbox. The number of new messages had grown impossibly large. Only someone with more patience than him could open and read each one. He scribbled the word ASSISTANT on a notepad in pencil. Next to it he added: ATTRACTIVE, YOUNG, SMART. He tapped the pencil against his front teeth, then returned to the notepad and struck through the last word.”

Will readers care how Clyde developed his attitude of comic self-importance? I’m betting not. Hopefully they’ll be more interested in the mess his attitude draws him into.

The next time you create a new character, focus on their attitude instead of their backstory. You might be surprised where it leads you.

Giving our Characters More Attitude (and Less Backstory) - @ToddAllenAuthor (Click to Tweet)

Focusing on the attitude of our characters can lead us wonderful places in our #writing @ToddAllenAuthor (Click to Tweet)

Todd Allen writes short stories and thrillers infused with an element of the supernatural. His work has been published in literary and suspense magazines including Chiron Review, Thought Magazine, and Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine. He also offers free samples of his stories and manuscripts on his website, He lives near Houston, Texas with his wife and three sons.

Follow Todd on Twitter @ToddAllenAuthor and Facebook


  1. Todd, Great advice. I'm embarking on my first novel. I've agonized over my characters. Thank you for your insight.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Cherrilynn. Best of luck to you in your writing!

  3. I love it when a character just jumps off the page and takes control of the world around him, just because that is who he is. I strive to write in that way, but it takes practice and determination to set aside any backstory and just let the words of the day flow.

    1. Great point! In every scene, each character has an attitude and an intention (or goal). The trick (and the fun) is to find how to best reveal and highlight those attitudes and intentions.

  4. Love this advice! I struggle with characterization. My brain is bursting with ideas. Thank you, Todd.