Every character has a past.
When you set out to tell a story, you’re starting at a particular moment in your character’s lives, but what about everything that went on before? It’s been said that the sum total of our pasts comes together to make us who we are today and the same thing goes for your characters.
Like always, there are lots of different ways to go about figuring out who your characters are and where they came from. Some writers make it up as they go, keeping notes to keep themselves internally consistent. Other writers (Myself included) prefer to do this before hand.
Coming up with a character’s backstory is an integral part of character creation for me – equally important to their physical description, and developing a 50 word description. While I don’t write pages and pages of backstory, I do get pretty in depth.
Now your mileage may vary, but this is my approach. I start out with the time they were born. This actually isn’t as time consuming as you might think. By the time I get this far, I’ve got this character in my head for the most part and coming up with a time isn’t that hard for me. It’s more than just plucking a time out of the aether, the character’s personality has something to do with it.
Along with the time, I make sure to include their parents – up to the point where I’ve created names for them. From there, I describe their childhood – and I’m painting with broad strokes here: Was it like for little Character as they grew up? Were they happy? ignored? Abused? Doted upon? Spoiled? Did they have any siblings? How did they get along? What was the age difference? That kind of stuff.
From there, I move onto what they were interested in, and their education (Both in school and what Life has taught them).
Again, I don’t get down to the granular level. I’m focusing on a few defining moments and how the character reacts to them. Part of this comes from work done earlier where I’m asking myself questions about what this character likes to do and what are the tings that are important to them. The nifty part of this is that the two parts of this process influence each other. If something in the backstory makes more sense for the character, it can change other decisions I’ve made earlier. The point is to be flexible.
A word of caution: You’re going to be spending time on this and you may be tempted to put as much of it as you can into the story. Don’t do that. Like world building, you should view character backstory like an iceberg. The reader only needs to see the ten percent that’s above the surface.
You, the author need to know the other ninety percent so that you can make informed decisions.
Say your character speaks more than one language. That adds a bit of depth to that character. Now say they do it reflexively under certain circumstances – anger, whispering endearing terms, etc. It’s enough for the reader to know that it happens but you, as the author need to know why it happens.
The work is worth doing so that you have a good idea of how your characters are going to act in a given situation. Knowing about what went on before to make them who they are today can be invaluable as you’re writing. Additionally, you never know what might be important. That little bit of a character’s past that you brainstormed up, may turn out to be useful later on.
Thanks for reading.
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