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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.
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.