Slashing Your Way Through Backstory?


Part 2: Motivation

If Jack the Ripper had a writer’s tool box instead of a medicine bag he could have written more tales of horror, blood and mutilation instead of being the instigator of terror to just a half dozen women. (The number of victims is unclear.) And if Jack the Ripper had written stories of his illegal misbehaving we might at least have an accurate account of who he was and why he hated immoral women. Well, all women. (This was a guy who collected wombs in jars) But what Jack the Ripper does, even though he’s been dead for a very long time, is teach us that life isn’t always neat and tidy and that the enigma of a character, whether real or fictional, has lasting effects on the mind. It burrows deep into the subconscious and it makes us ask the question, why? Why did he commit those atrocities? I want to know.

Why? That three letter word is the reason we tend to keep reading about someone as horrible as Jack. We as readers and writers want to know what drives a character into doing what they did. Okay. There are many theories about Jack’s motive. We will never really know why he did what he did. Conspiracy or not, the man evaded being caught. That’s why we’re fascinated by him. What a character. So let’s (pardon the pun) dissect the questions that popped into my head.

I ask myself what drove Jack the Ripper. What or who pushed him over the edge?

1)      His mother:

  • Was his mother a whore? (In actual fact she was.) What kind of life did she bring him into?

2)      Was he browbeaten by a wife perhaps?

  • Did people mock him for not wearing the pants?

3)      Did he kill because he wasn’t able to fulfill his duty as a man?

  • Did a prostitute laugh at him? Embarrass him. Did many?

Those questions are all related backstory. The history of your character gives you the reasons for the motive. Would a reader believe in a character, sympathize or empathize with someone as sinister as Jack if he had the sweet life every boy dreamed of? If he had the most beautiful wife who gave him bountiful sex or a loving mother who taught him that God will sort out the sinners. We don’t know the real backstory of Jack the Ripper but it is essential for you as a writer to know your character’s backstory, every little sordid detail. You don’t necessarily have to write everything in the story, but you definitely have to know it.

Here are some more questions:

4)      Was he just a misunderstood gynecologist?

5)      Assuming he was a surgeon or a medical man of some sort why did he want to dissect a cadaver whilst it was still warm?

6)      Or, he didn’t make it into medical school because he had spent his fortune on Mollies.

This also relates to backstory, even if it is in the present. He has made choices in his past that have led him to the moment of slicing and dicing and the taking out of … it’s just too gross.

7)      So he cut the women’s throats:

  • Was it to silence them?
  • Was it because he wanted them to die slowly?

8)      He mutilated their faces(which got progressively worse):

  • Was it because he knew them?
  • Was it because he was feeling guilty?
  •  Was it because he was playing out a fantasy he would like to do to someone else who he was obsessing over or couldn’t live without?

9)      The dissection of what makes a woman different to a man?

  • Did he have womb envy?
  • Was it the final act of male domination?

Animals kill differently than humans. Their tools include claws, teeth, speed and strength to get the job done. A psycho has his method and tools of the trade too. For Jack the Ripper, he had a scalpel. The method of killing is important to further character development. He was not sloppy. He had ample opportunity and plenty of time. Remember, he slit their throats, cut up their faces, then did all those things that make every woman want to cross her legs. For him it was close and personal. So method is important. He was a methodical man, he took his time. That says a lot about a character. Modus Operandi gives an insight into the dark side of any killer.

10)   Could the reason for killing the women of the night simply be because he was less likely to get caught? He needed the darkness and of course no respectable woman in 1888 would be seen out at night on the streets of London by herself. How improper indeed.

  • Did he have a day job?
  • If he was married, did he have to wait for his wife to fall asleep?

Let’s not forget that scenery, the place, time and era are all just as important. Location, location, location. Ask yourself, could Jack the Ripper in today’s technological era get away with the crimes? There are so many more eyes in the world, , cameras, mobile phones, people preoccupied with seeing if they can witness something a little out of the ordinary. Could he have done it in the day time and if he had chosen respectable women would he have been able to get away with it? If Jack’s victims were mothers of two and church goers, would the police have made a more aggressive effort to find him faster?

There are a hell of a lot more questions I could ask, but that would mean a 10,000 word essay on the matter and I hate essays.

It’s a lot of fun getting to know what your character’s motives are. The reason I chose Jack was because he never got caught and therefore nothing is really known about him, but boy, we would love to know, right. That’s the power of mystery. We want to know. Take that into consideration with any character your write about. They don’t have to be scary or monsters. They can be everyday people. The only thing is you have to make us think there’s more to this person and to want to get to the bottom of it, to want to find out what makes this person someone of interest.

I did have another question but unfortunately it has sparked an idea that I don’t quite want to share. It was one of those questions that would make you think outside the box. But the unique take on the Ripper was too much to pass up.

I’ll keep you posted.

Rip into writing

Dissect every character and have fun doing it

E. J. McLaughlin


First Impressions Do Matter


Part 1: Attitudes

Whether characters are good or evil, the one aspect that sets them apart from one another is their attitude. In the examples below there are two different types of characters with unique outlooks on the same situation. Warning: one is not so nice and quite frankly I hated her so much that I wanted to delete her out of existence, but then again where’s the fun in that. This was a character that made me feel uneasy and uncomfortable. I then realised before I hit that delete key that she was someone, as a writer, I could have fun with. How boring would a story be if everyone was nice?

1)      Catherine Sparse: My mother’s three year battle with cancer was, to say the least, an inconvenience. I mean, because of her, I didn’t have any time for myself. Couldn’t she have asked someone else take care of her so I could at least finish my novel without the emotional strain she put on me? She shouldn’t have taken so long to die. My dreams of becoming a writer have been seriously crushed. Because of her I’m three years behind. I can’t up make those lost three years. How could she do that to me after all I had done for her?

2)      Libby Flower: My mother’s three year battle with cancer, braving the low odds of surviving, has left me surprisingly stronger after her passing. My mum would’ve wanted it that way. She was my biggest supporter and it was a shame that our roles switched in the last year of her life. She hated the fact that I had to take on the role of mother. I will always miss her cheeky grin. Not being able to write may have been frustrating and sporadic most of the time, but I don’t regret any of it. I only wish I could have spent more time with her even though she told me that I had done enough before things went horribly wrong. How I wish I could hug her just one last time.

While writing this post I wasn’t going to create names for these characters. Then wham, like a sledge hammer against a plaster wall, they told me who they were. They even left cracks in the wall because I tried to ignore them. Talk about attitude.

Back to the post.

Catherine Sparse’s attitude instantly made me not like her. How about you? What did you truly think of her? Her attitude towards her mother is just as stinky as my kids’ school socks after sports day. Deep down I’m hoping she’ll get her comeuppance, but at the same time I secretly wanted to know how she became so self-centred and cruel. I had the urge to keep writing about her to find out what kind of relationship she had with her mother in the first place. Surreptitiously, I was hoping she would end up a victim of cancer with no one to look after her. She began to grow on me like a fungus between my toes. (I don’t really have fungus between my toes.) But she does have that ickiness about her.

Libby Flower’s attitude was something I could relate to. I feel bad when I hear of anyone who is struggling with cancer. Here was a woman I wanted to reach out and hug. As a writer I would like to break her down just one more time with another disheartening moment in her life to make her stronger, but as a reader, I want to cheer her on, give her my support. I want her to achieve enlightenment and happiness.

The importance of characters good or bad (protagonist or antagonist) is that they have to evoke a response from the first moment readers meet them. If you don’t get that right, you’ll lose them. You need a connection, even if it’s one of hate and loathing. Character attitudes are the most fun to play around with. I love writing someone good then as an exercise write the same character nasty. Attitudes can say a lot about a character. Even though there are no physical descriptions, I started to conjure images in my mind of what they looked like. Names can do that too. (We will be discussing those at some point in another post.)

So how do we find the right Attitude?

  • Backstory: Every moment in those women’s lives from the time they were born to the present day shaped the person they have become.
  • Beliefs: Are they spiritual, religious, are they superstitious?
  • Friends and peers have a habit of bringing out the good, bad and naughty side in us.
  • Circumstances: Have they lost their job? Are they a timid person but when they see disaster are they the ones who save the trapped people or are they a brave talker but shy in the face of danger? Have they just come into money? Lost their homes? Have they just found the job of their dreams? These and all the other abundant circumstances you can put characters in will make them act a certain way.
  • Setting: Put them in a hospital, a dark alley, a crowded train and see how they act. Imagine if your character has a crowd issue and is stuck on a peak hour train. Is your character someone who would freak out if the lights in their house went out or would they just amble to the fuse box to fix it? How would they act if they found themselves in a sex shop? (This is a great exercise to expose how your character feels about their sexuality.)

Just remember when you create a character to define them by their attitude. Their attitudes can change. We do all the time, so should your characters. Take another look at the two character studies again and ask yourself—and be honest—why do I feel the way I feel about Catherine Sparse and Libby Flower?

Until the next time …

Don’t just write with your hands; write with your head, heart and soul.

E. J. McLaughlin