Creating characters who are genuinely interesting = putting in the time and energy it takes to write their ‘back story’.
Characters are like real people: they have likes, dislikes, hopes, anxieties, dreams and phobias. They have families, friends, and life experiences which shaped their thinking, beliefs, instincts, reactions, and motivations. Real people are a wonderful, messy, walking mass of contradictions, and believable characters are the same.
You may already have a good idea what your characters will be like, but it’s amazing how much fuller they become with a solid backstory that unpacks why they’re the way they are.
For example, activists are typically galvanized by some injustice in their own lives, and cynics are often disillusioned optimists. Without knowing the ‘why’, the characters aren’t fully formed. Even if the specific events which galvanized the activist or frustrated the optimist don’t make it into the finished manuscript, the writer must understand what makes these characters tick.
There are many ways to tackle this. My approach to creating back stories evolved over time, and is still evolving. But as a starting point, here’s what I’ve discovered:
Many creative writing experts suggest using a grid-like checklist which includes things like: positive/negative personality traits, motivation/goals, hidden past/trauma, relationships, what does success/failure look like, and so on.
I’ve done these charts. They are great for getting the ball rolling, but they never felt like enough. There was always a sense of something missing. Useful, yes, but more as a starting point.
I’ve found it more helpful to write out a literal ‘story’ about the character(s). Tell their family history, the events which shaped them, their hopes and dreams, triumphs and disasters. What injustice lit a fire under the activist? What disaster/betrayal caused the optimist to lose hope?
Short biographies of your major (and secondary) characters brings them into well-rounded life. Suddenly, the question “would (insert character here) really say/do this?” moves from quasi-guess to confident decision.
Everyone has their own approach, but my character sketches and back-stories are written long-hand. That’s right—paper and pen. I just sit down and write. It’s proven to be the most reliable way to unleash creativity.
In my case, it could be a throw-back to my junior high days when my mother’s manual Underwood typewriter was my weapon of choice. Nobody at age thirteen wants to type and retype, so I’d sit there—hands poised over the keys like a calcified bird of prey—until I was sure what I wanted to say.
This creativity-throttling habit may have leaked into my laptop from time to time. So, going completely old-skewl with pen and paper is creatively liberating.
Psst… It’s a secret…
Here’s the hard part: you’ve just written some breathlessly thorough sketches for your major characters. Suddenly, it’s ridiculously tempting to include every single detail into your manuscript so your readers will know the characters as intimately as you do.
Resist that temptation.
On the positive side, feel free to sprinkle hints and pieces of their back-story throughout your manuscript. Just don’t front-load your first chapter with an info-dump on each character. Pace yourself (and your readers), and let the mystery of each character unfold throughout the novel.
Another temptation to avoid is the dreaded Prologue.
I invested a lot of time in world-creation for the novel I’m currently writing. I created—yes, using paper and pen—a lengthy treatise on the local history, geography, and civic development, spanning several generations. It resembled something you’d get in a high school Social Studies class.
It was fun to write, and I was so pleased with what I’d created that I foolishly entertained the notion of including the whole thing as a Prologue.
For about ten seconds, and then common sense prevailed.
‘World Creation’ is simply the back-story of the society where your novel takes place. It’s important, as a writer, to understand the ins and outs of your fictional world, but unless you’re J.R.R. Tolkien, few readers really need or want the entire history.
Again, feel free to sprinkle tidbits and a short paragraph or two here and there—where it truly helps move the story forward—but resist the temptation to explain every cultural nuance in its historical context. The Social Studies world-creation is invaluable in keeping your fictional society consistent, but don’t do a massive info-dump and call it a Prologue.
(It’s also widely whispered that editors and publishers skip prologues as a matter of principle, so you’re not doing yourself any favors by submitting a manuscript that depends on one.)
So, in a nutshell:
- Do your homework.
- Keep some secrets.
- Avoid the info-dump masquerading as a ‘prologue’.
P.S. Give the ‘paper and pen’ method a try sometime. You never know.