Don’t Look Back

The back story is important to who a character is and why they are who they are. I like to think carefully about how people behave and how their parents raised them. Just because someone is a good standing citizen doesn’t mean their children inherently are. The same goes for anything. Sometimes the apple stays close to the trunk sometimes it falls off, rolls down a hill, plops into a stream and makes it out to the ocean. In this case, I don’t want to lay out the back story I want to show it, give the reader the reins to imagine what it was within the guidelines I lay out.  A look back without looking back.

Giving characters this sort of history can allow my reader to become more in-tune or sympathize with them. If it’s necessary for a story line I make sure to let the readers know where a character comes from without having to use flashbacks or reminiscent conversation. I sometimes like to give that view in real-time without saying much or anything directly about their past experiences.

It’s been a while since I’ve visited Anne for an example so I thought I’d use her.

Hank paused with his fork halfway to his mouth. “A nurse?”
A look and tone Tony was used to.
“But you’re so handsome.” Tianne pouted at her daughter’s boyfriend. Hanks’ eyes slid quickly to his wife as she continued. “Did you mean you play a nurse on TV or something?”
“Ti, dear it doesn’t take a genius to know that not everyone good-looking is on TV.”
Anne held her breath as her parents went back and forth passively aggressively insulting the other. When Hank finished his drink in one gulp Anne realized he lied and was drinking anyway.
“Dad you promised.” She whispered.
“I’ll do as I damned well please little lady.” Hank’s voice rose and he looked at Tianne. “Deal with your daughter.” He stormed out to refresh his drink without offering anyone else.
Tianne narrowed her eyes at her daughter. “Anne don’t antagonize your father. It’s not his fault your flaunting your lack of morals.”
Tony put his hand over Anne’s under the table as Hank came back in.
“Oh no, not in my house.” He gestured at their hands. “Bad enough you’re like your mother, don’t start that here.”
“Hank love, we have company. Please watch what you say.”
“Watch your own mouth Ti.” Hank gulped down his second drink.
Tony clenched his jaw as Anne slammed her napkin on her plate and stormed off to find privacy. It was bad of her to leave Tony to them, but she couldn’t stop herself.

Anne chewed her bottom lip fighting back tears and closed her eyes at the soft knock on the bathroom door.
“It’s me, open up.” Tony’s gentle voice came through muffled.  With a sigh, she opened the door and turned her back to him.
“Hey.” Tony turned her around and pulled her into a hug. “So things got a little weird.” He chuckled softly into her hair. “That’s what parents are supposed to do.”
“Yeah, but he promised he wouldn’t drink and she swore she wouldn’t insult me. I just wanted…”
Tony put his hand under her chin and made her look up at him. “Wait till you meet mine. I don’t care what they do or say, Anne. You are nothing like your mother.”
She sucked her breath in at the extreme compliment. She looked like her and had her temper, or lack of, but that’s where it ended.
“I’ll be honest, I was surprised, she looks so young and your dad…”
Anne nodded. “She had me when she was barely sixteen. He’s twice her age and twice as mean.” She sighed heavily and shook her head. They were hard on her but not her because of their own mistake, which happens to be her. “Let’s go get this over with, if they keep it up we’ll leave.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Tony followed her down the stairs to the dining room. The second her mom started in on her he had a flashback to the bar when Neil called her names and she took it. It wasn’t because she wasn’t strong, she was used to it.

Giving insight into a character through others can be fun. It can also be intimidating. This is why I always keep track of family as well as characters, of how they influence or interact. Anne might be friendly and tease one friend but then argue or nit-pick another. It’s a good idea to keep those interactions documented so she can stay steady in her interactions.

I find it’s easiest to use conflicting characters such as parents, a boss, long time friends, or siblings even relatives like an aunt or uncle to help show the history of a character without actually showing it or getting too abstract.

My advice about showing the past in real-time.
It’s worth a try especially if you want to avoid flashback or reminiscent dialogue. I do recommend that you keep track of who is who and how they interact like suggested in my previous post “who’s who in the grand scheme of things”.


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Who’s who in the grand scheme of things

When I create a character such as Sasha, I build them up from the bottom to the top. It’s called backstory From their childhood and any traumas or lack of, all the way through life experiences to their present day. They need moments that define who they are, incidences good, bad and mediocre to sculpt their persona. Coworkers, strangers and friends that come and go or stick around are important. Family however are the most important. Whether they have none or too many members needs to be established. Family shapes who we are and should play a part in my characters life as well.

I create family trees for everyone. How important they are depends on how deep, the roots and branches go. The mains and prominent villains get the biggest trees or the ones with the most details. Each family member has a small bio whether it’s used or not. A vague reference to Uncle William being the family drunken mess could play a big part on my character Sasha’s views and behavior toward drinking. Perhaps he scarred her with a particularly bad episode so is leery of ever getting drunk enough to lose control. Maybe Grandma Jillian was a remarkable woman who struggled through one adversity after another and solidified Sasha’s strength and determination in life. Was it her great uncle, who threw her high in the air scaring her and missing once that caused her fear of falling? It’s important to know who they are and what role they play.

Is it always black and white or set in stone? No, I’ve changed family members to fit the story to led a moment or two to influence Sasha. My point is that without a history, without friends and family influence or lack of a person is empty of life experience. She had a family but her friend Anne didn’t, she grew up alone bouncing from obscure relatives to foster homes. She has issues and they show in her interaction with Sasha. Are they in your face, holy crap she’s damaged interactions? No that’s not realistic. People brood and often hide their feelings only letting shreds out. Mystery is tantalizing and even if its small it will foster the readers interest in the character.

How far do I go back? Usually one generation beyond use(I’ve even gone forward one preparing for the future). If she only ever mentions her Grandparents then I’ll go back to the great grandparents and their children. Not all branches are full or finished if its completely unnecessary. If Sasha’s grandma mentions she had two siblings but I talk about a third that might be noticed. That is why I use family trees. Even for the bad-guys especially if they come in to play even a little. Mine are created in an excel spreadsheet, each member has a description. Height, age, birthday, build, eyes, hair and skin color. Ethnicity and languages they speak and job. A brief bio on their history if necessary. I add to this and edit all the time. Maybe it wasn’t uncle William but Uncle Paul instead. It really depends on how I want to progress the story.

Each tree is important, for each book I have a small forest of trees big and small. For BiaAtlas I have three main family trees and I’m careful to maintain accuracy.

My advice about family trees.
Don’t look at it as a chore. It is the opportunity to build depth into your story and characters. It may or may not be needed but it helps me keep who’s who sorted out and provides a wonderful source for potential drama or character growth.


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