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Chekov’s Nerf Gun

August 31, 2015

Today’s realization is about characters. The basic advice is that, if you’re creating a character for a story, you want them to be rounded, to have virtues and flaws, likes and dislikes, relationships to other people and their world, so that they generally feel real, human, and relatable. You also want to give them hobbies and backstory, and interesting ones if you can, so that again, they feel like a real person.

The more advanced advice is to craft those virtues and flaws so they’re flip sides of a coin and integral to the story, which means that the story is at least partly propelled by the character’s traits rather than the things that happen to the character.

What doesn’t come up nearly as often is that it’s not just that coin of flaws you need to worry about integrating. It’s the hobbies and backstory too. Fortunately, this doesn’t seem to come up as a problem that often. Either writers already know instinctively to weave that in, or they’re applying Chekov’s gun, or their editors are pointedly suggesting that maybe Susan shouldn’t be a championship dog groomer if she’s the main character in a spy thriller, or that Bob’s ability to catch flies in mid-flight should somehow help him save his generation ship.

Look, I don’t really know why this has occurred to me now, years into my attempt to write publishable novels, especially since I’m also sticking to this, but hey.

On the one hand, I am all for keeping extraneous backstory out of novels (and dramas, and film), because that makes for a tighter story and you’re not prepping the reader/audience to expect Isabelle losing her favourite toy at Disneyland at 5 to somehow relate to her unemployment troubles at 50.*

On the other hand, I’m just enough of a boundary-pusher to ask what would happen if we wrote stories where hobbies/backstory/relationships had no bearing on the story. What if Susan’s very proud of her doggie haircuts but is also a CIA agent who saves the President? What if Juan, who once inspired his aunt to write a best-selling picture book, were the one man in all of North America who could slay dragons?

Probably this has been done. Probably books like this are sitting in slush piles and desk drawers as we speak. But I still kind of want to see them (even if they’re awful) and to see if it’s possible to flout Chekov’s gun and still get published. To still get published and do well.

What do you guys think?


* Literary authors sometimes pull stuff like that off, and I admire them for it, because it’s got to be really, really tough to do.

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