Characters Should Have a Past



There are many elements that contribute to making for believable and relatable characters.  We know we need to assign idiosyncrasies, strong belief systems, weaknesses and strengths, qualities that make our readers fall in love with them, and other characteristics that reel them back.  Incorporating these variances create perfect characters because they come alive.  As is the case with real life people exhibit different facets to their personalities, and so should our characters.

So what about back-story?  Maybe the word conjures up a negative connotation for you.  As we set out in our writing journey and hone our craft, we know we have to watch how we infuse this into our stories.  But today's discussion isn't so much on back-story and how to weave this in effectively.  (For a post on this see:  Incorporating Backstory.)

Today, I'd like to focus on how a past assigned to our characters creates "real people".*  We're told to start our stories where the action is.  This advice makes sense because it serves to pull in our readers from the first page.  They want to know what's going to happen, they become invested with the characters--connected.

Related to this topic though, why would we assume our characters don't have a past?  As real people don't we have a past?  These experiences shape and mold us into the person we have become.  In fact, you wouldn’t even have a book if your characters didn’t have a past, or you would start at their birth and work your way to action--yawn.

So, the question is to you the author, do your characters have a past?  They should--and they need to.  But how it is weaved into the plot is at the discretion of your skills and aptitude.

How do you get to know your character’s past?

1) Interview them
2) Question their reactions to a scene (especially useful as a “panster” style writer).  Are they reacting a certain way just because of the moment, or does it go back farther?
3)  Keep writing them.  There’s no doubt we know our characters intimately by the end of a book.  Most times we don’t want to let them go.  Use this deeper knowledge when you go back through to edit and re-write.

What are some ways you’ve used to get to know your character’s better?

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*For an in depth look at Creating Characters You Can Pinch, see the 7-part series here.

Comments

  1. "Interviewing" them is one of my favorite ways to sketch out their lives. It gives me a general idea of how they'd react to things or remind me of how funny they are.
    I'm using Scrivener for my 2nd book now and they have a great outline for characters with info such as "internal conflict, external conflict, background, physical description, etc." It's really helped me flesh out new characters as well as help better establish my existing ones!

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    1. I've heard about this Scrivener. You make it sound like a wonderful program. I use OneNote at this point. A sheet for each character, especially helpful with a series.

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  2. I enjoyed this post. As a reader, knowing the character's back story is important, as you can then predict how they're going to act in future events. As a writer, finding that perfect mix of backstory and what's happening now is important.

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    1. I completely agree. Just because we know their past doesn't give us licence to "info dump" it on our readers. Like you noted, tying it into what's important now.

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  3. Good reminder. Sometimes, to avoid boring backstory, I write too lean. But it's easier then, like you suggest, to go back when editing and add where needed.

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    1. Exactly, and everyone has their rhythm that works best for them. I find because I know them more by the end of the book,it makes it easier to incorporate more in the edits like you.

      I have started something new in my more recent works though. I run the main characters through a brief interview. It helps a lot more from page one.

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  4. On rewrite, I discovered that I had included too much backstory and ripped it out. I'm now converting that discard pile into another book.

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    1. Hey Jack, within there lies a danger too - I agree.

      I know with the first chapter of my one novel, I revised to include more information based on advice from a beta reader. When it comes time to edit for publication, I'm certain I'll be paring it back to more where I had it originally.

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  5. Great article! I totally agree -- the best way to get to really know your characters is to interview them and ask the really hard questions :)

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    1. I think so too, Jennifer. I especially like asking them how they feel about other characters in the book. It can make for some interesting responses.

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  6. I joked that when I started using Rory's Story Cubes to do ficlets in the same world as my series (http://jenniecoughlin.wordpress.com/rorys-story-cubes-challenge/), I was fanficcing myself, but it's turned out to be a surprisingly useful tool to figure out about the characters because stuff pops up as I'm writing and then I can pull it apart and figure out "well, where did that come from?" For pantsers, it might be particularly helpful because it keeps that serendipity feel while writing.

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    1. Sounds like an interesting writing exercise,Jennie.

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