Back-story. Background Story, History, Origin story, whatever you want to call it, it is what makes a character who they are before the story started. How important is it to create back-story for characters? Without history and experience a person is pretty dull and can become unbelievable. Even if a back-story never makes it directly into the manuscript it’s important for it to be there.
A character may be a jerk, but why? Why is it important as the writer to know where a character came from?
To illustrate easily let me ask you… What’s your story? What makes you… you? Everyone has one and this should be true to wrting as well. Writing a generalized jerk is okay, but one that picks specifically on red heads and girls with freckles might have a deeper reason for doing so. That doesn’t mean I have to even mention the reason just that the character only ever picks on those two types.
There are several types of back-story. Here are some that I’ve used.
The type that defines a person. For example Jill and Jane were raised in an extremely abusive household. Jill grew up fighting against domestic violence and has a tender caring heart, while Jane internalized and let the situation take seed. She now abuses her daughter and husband and has developed a dependency on alcohol and prescription drugs to cope. Not every situation has to have the same impact on a person. In this case I would have Jill actively speak out against any form of violence or bullying. Jane might be the one that causes all the strife in Jill’s life.
A minor character or even major one may have an issue with mustard. Perhaps they were forced to eat it as a child and sat crying at the table for hours until they choked it down. They may not be actively aggressive or upset about mustard now, but they certainly wont touch it and my even be repulsed by someone who eats it.
A back-story that hasn’t quite ended. Someone may have had to care for a sick relative and has reached their limit. They are still caring for said relative but the manuscript picks up middle to end of the care process. This can be a great way to have a character spring-board into their journey. They may have to choose to end said relatives life out of mercy, desperation or loathing. They may love them till their last breath and on their dying words are told something that forever changes their life. This sort of back story would pop up often and easily lead to flashback scenarios.
The back-story that causes major change or a huge shift in a character. A happy-go-lucky person, who is strong and successful is injured or loses everything suddenly. A family is suddenly cut in half by a tragic accident causing the protagonist to question their life.
Back-story’s go hand in hand with plot devices. For my characters they have a story to tell. Whether its outright and part of the plot or arc, or if it’s subtle and shown in their behaviors, preferences and life choices. If Johnny has no respect for police officers and it gets him in constant trouble, there is a reason.
Keeping track of back-story is very important no matter how small a part they play. I use charts and lists to make sure everyone has a reason for what they do and don’t do. Does this mean a character’s back-story is set in stone? Nope, I’ve added and removed things to suit them and where I want them to go. But it helps to know where they started if I want them to seem real.
Minor/flat/static characters generally have untold back-story. The exhausted overly cheerful hot-dog vendor works 15 hour days to support his dying wife. The crying child climbing the shelves in the supermarket, driving everyone crazy, just lost his father in a plane crash and struggles to cope. Do I mention all those details? No. Probably not.
The Main/Rounded/Dynamic Characters will have their back-story come out at some point or in small doses along the way. They are after all on a journey of growth and change.
My advice about Back-story
Make sure everyone has one. Decide who gets to reveal them and who doesn’t. Keep the minor characters simple and express their back-story by very subtle means. It’s super annoying to be brow beaten by a paragraph delving into the reason Mike the mechanic rips off his customers. Just that he does, is enough.
Other character building posts.
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