Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Key to Characterization: B is for Backstory

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Every time a character just doesn’t feel right or isn’t developing or I just can’t figure out how to make him/her work, I always find the answer in developing the character’s backstory.

Backstory is the history of the character or everything that has happened to the character before the story begins.  Sometimes it is necessary to go back even further to the lives of the character’s parents, grandparents, etc.  For me this is the most crucial step in characterization.  If I don’t know where a character has been, I don’t know where that character is going.   I always find that if I don’t have a good handle on a character, I need more backstory.

I watched a documentary not too long ago, Nova's Mind of a Rampage Killer, which examined mass shootings and what could cause some individuals to go on these murdering rampages.  And while there is no easy answer, there certainly were some common experiences of neglect, abuse, exclusion, and extreme bullying.  None of these killers had a happy, carefree childhood.  There were some biological similarities as well shown by brain scans and genetics.  Ultimately the take home message I got, was that an individual’s personality is formed by a complex interaction between their genes (nature) and life experiences (nurture).   I think it’s about 50:50 on the nature vs. nurture debate.  But certainly their life experiences led them down that path.

Think about how you get to know a person.  I know that I tend to ask questions about a person’s past, where they grew up, how many siblings, birth order, high school experiences, etc.  I always seemed to delve into someone’s personal history if I really want to understand who they are.  Their favorite color and food doesn’t tell me as much as whether they were popular in high school or an only child.  On some level, I think we all can see patterns in these life experiences that make us who we are.  And characters will be more believable if readers can see similar patterns in them.

I know that I tend to create pretty extensive backstories for my main characters, but I only put enough on the page so the reader can understand the characters’ motives.  I believe that what is held back helps to create a depth to the characters.  The reader can sense that there is more to the character than what is on the page, and that makes the character more complex and more interesting.  What you don’t show but know is just as important as what you do show.

So delve a little deeper into your characters’ backstories.  Your characters will be richer for it.

Want more advice on creating backstories?  Here are some awesome links.


~MaryAnn

P.S  Tune in tomorrow for our continuation of Blogging from A to Z.  Our fabulous Susan will be blogging about C.  I can’t wait to see what she does.

18 comments:

  1. Oooh, great word for B day. I've found that putting in a bit of character back story as sort of beats between the action really helps me figure out the characters I'm dealing with. Wonderful post!

    Sarah Allen
    (From Sarah, With Joy)

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    1. Oh definitely. I think you should sprinkle it in when it is relevant so you don't do the dreaded info dump. :)

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  2. Excellent! To me, a strong backstory keeps my characters consistent. Like you said, until I have insight into their past, I can't predict or write their actions realistically in the story. Great stuff to keep in mind, and excellent links!

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    1. Totally agree. For some reason I need backstories to keep my characters consistent. Glad the links were helpful.

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  3. Ooo, I love backstory.

    When I'm writing and I'm stymied with what a character needs to say or do, I often find that it's because there's something in their backstory that I don't know. Once I figure it out, the story flows again.

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    1. Same here. It almost feels mystical. :)

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  4. I think backstory is something that would help me more on my current work in progress. I'm a bit stuck on how to start, and i think it's because I don't know enough about my characters to trust them to talk like a human yet. Great post, MaryAnn, really helpful.

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    1. I'm glad it was useful. I always struggle with where to start. I hope a little digging into your characters' pasts will help. :)

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  5. I think backstory is one of my favorite things to do. I love writing out detailed life histories for my characters. I also like your idea of thinking about how you get to know someone - good to think about.

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    1. Me too. I don't know why, but I do love creating backstory. I think it has something to do with how I like to try to figure people out in real life. :)

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  6. This one definitely trips up a lot of us writers. Good topic. I think the too much/not enough line varies with the individual too.

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    1. Absolutely, I also think that line varies in different genres and is very dependent on the type of story you are trying to tell. Some require much more backstory than others.

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  7. Great topic! I have been worried about the lack of back story in my current project and trying to come up with ways to fix it. This post was very timely. Oh, and thanks for the links :)

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    1. Glad it was helpful! :)

      Those links do have some great info.

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  8. I like it when I discover a character's backstory as the plot unfolds, as opposed to info. dumping. Backstory can also be a great foreshadowing device.

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    1. Same here. It's like a little mystery. I have a hard time pulling it off when I write thought. It definitely takes some skill.

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  9. Backstory is so hard for me. Not because I can't come up with anything, but because I tend to get hung up in the details. I don't put it into the story, but I spend too many hours trying to figure out every little piece of each character's lives. It's maddening! lol

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    1. Yeah, you can go overboard in backstory, and get lost in it, just like worldbuilding. I've also created backstory which started seeming more interesting than the story I was writing. That is always fun. :)

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