Beginnings Always End Something
Or why character backstory is vital to your story.
“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
In preparation for NaNoWriMo, I read numerous blogs about plot and structure and how to do both. What I’ve not seen many writers mention is the need for well thought out characters. Plot is after all character driven. Without meaningful characters there will be no plot.
So how do you go about creating a character that is compelling?
My advice; start at the beginning. No wait, let me explain. Start with where you see your character now. Their beginning in your story. Now go back. What lead them up to this point? What decisions did they make? What people influenced them? What outside actions took their toll? How does their upbringing influence their current thinking and actions?
That’s a lot to think about.
Maybe you aren’t sure how your character’s history has influenced them, or maybe you aren’t convinced it matters. Let’s explore a couple of examples to see how this could work. (A note before we continue: writing a character’s backstory is for your information, when writing the actual story you want to keep as much of it as possible hidden from the reader, only revealing what is absolutely necessary. We’ll discuss why later in the post.)
Once Upon a Time . . .
There was a young gladiator. He risked his life for the amusement of others on a regular basis. He trained, he grew and became mighty, fearless and feared. His ambitions did not stop at the arena walls. He wanted to foment change, to start a revolution.
There was a young scholar. He read, cataloged and reported on the goings on of the empire. He learned and within him grew a sense of what is just, what is right and respect for the sanctity of life. He dreamed of a world without corruption, without oppression of the weak and less fortunate.
And one day they met.
“From the greatest love comes the most vicious hate.”
This meeting took place quietly, no grand fanfare, no one really took much notice till later when events started to happen and the revolution was well under way. They fought for the same ideals yet their methods were as different as night and day. Understandably the gladiator turned to force, using his great charisma to sway the masses to his side, and using his sword when words failed. The scholar knowing little to nothing of fighting opened the debate with their ruling council, using his intellect and many years of study to try and persuade them. The gladiator was impatient and took matters into his own hands much to the horror of the scholar. Their friendship shattered as the council bestowed the scholar with the most important title their civilization had to offer. The gladiator, frustrated and feeling impotent now turned his attention from overthrowing the caste system to destroying his onetime friend.
In their current iteration we rarely hear anything about how these two met or why. We only know that they were once friends and are now bitter enemies. Yet their back story is critical to where they are now.
Some of you may recognize the characters I’m speaking of here. I have not named them because I want the focus to be on their back story, not on who they are.
In my novel Sorrow’s Fall little is said of my protagonist’s upbringing outside of a few comments on his training and a random memory or two that is relevant to what is currently happening. He does not dwell on it, yet is shapes his actions, defines him. Without his past he would be a radically different person.
There are many times when a character seems to just appear out of a fog with no back history or explanation of why or how they came to where they are. Sometimes the reader is willing to put aside this in favor of learning about the character. Wolverine comes to mind. He himself did not know his past and it haunted him. His lack of a past drove him forward, dictated his actions and even his friendships and alliances. He was unwilling to trust anyone.
Then there are characters who we are introduced to just as they reach a defining moment in their lives. Peter Parker/Spider Man for example.
In each of these examples, the writer knows exactly where these characters are coming from. Or should. Knowing where your character has been makes determining where they are going much easier. Why is that so?
We are the sum of our experiences. Your character should be too. This might take some in depth research and hard soul searching. But, that is what writing is about, finding those hidden truths about ourselves that others can relate to, those hidden gems are what make outstanding characters.
Happily Ever After . . .
So even though pretty much 98% of your character’s back story won’t end up in your actual prose, it is still a huge part of the story. Without it the characters have nowhere to go and no drive to get there.
Lets look back at my first example of the gladiator and the scholar. Without their past they would have no reason to fight each other now. There would be no sense of betrayal on either side. No one but the two of them truly know the depth of their emotion over what happened, except their writer. You should know these types of details about your character as well. Knowing when to use them in your story is a different beast altogether.
If you would like more help with creating a character check out these helpful books: