All stories occur in the context of larger stories. Each character is shuffling along through the larger tale that is their life, and suddenly they are plunged into the situation that forms the premise for the story you are writing. For example, I just finished reading Robert Bailey’s novel, Legacy of Lies. In it, a well-respected Tennessee District Attorney finds herself charged with the murder of her ex-husband. A key question is, how and why did she end up in this challenging situation? The answer is found her backstory–the larger story of her life. It is found in the choices, events, traumas, and triumphs she experienced that form her personality and create the choices and conflicts she faces at the beginning of Bailey’s fine novel.
When you fashion a story and look for effective and exciting plot lines and compelling drama, one of the places to look is in your characters’ backstory. Try to create a character profile for all your main characters and key minor characters. Start with a physical description of your characters, which I discussed here. Then write up a backstory for your character. It can be as detailed and as long as you like. It can also be short and concise. The key is that it answers how and why the character has ended up in your story. Also, keep in mind that you are not writing this backstory for publication. It doesn’t have to be well written—brainstorm. Spill your ideas on the page, content that no one else will likely read them.
All stories occur in the context of larger stories.
Here is an example of what I mean. This is the backstory of a minor character, Melody Frei, in a novel I am rewriting and editing now.
BACKGROUND: Grew up in Portland in a lower middle-class family. Went to Lincoln High School. Had sort of a wild life during HS, but still did well and finally went to college at PSU where she met the protagonist. She married him when she was 20 and quit school in her junior year to have their first child. Things went okay until she ran into one of her old HS boyfriends in about year six of her marriage. This chance meeting led to adultery, drug use, and an eventual divorce. She ended up living with a series of boyfriends, doing rehab on multiple occasions, with the financial help of the protagonist, and generally living a hard existence alienated from her former husband and children.
When Melody first appears in the story, she is on the street, wandering around with her latest boyfriend, Ricky, in the wake of a terrible disaster. The backstory tells me how and why she ended up there. It provides context for the conflict between her and the protagonist for the rest of the story.
Finally, think about how much of a character’s backstory should end up in the story itself. If you spend a lot of time on it, the temptation is to use it all. Don’t do it. Nothing is more boring than an information dump. Just use enough to give your reader the information they need to follow the story. Feed the details into the story a bit at a time and don’t use parts of the backstory with no relevance to moving the tale.
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Trail to Peril.
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One thought on “How to Create Characters–Backstory”
Make the characters real. Most novelists never take time to have their characters do the simplest things, eat, go to the toilet, aches and pains, etc.