Six tips for using backstory to create compelling characters
One of my followers on Twitter, @kateblogs asked me for some tips on backstory. I’m not surprised. At writers’ conferences and anywhere published authors and book agents take questions from the audience, there are always questions about backstory: how much to create and how much of it to include in the book.
Unfortunately, those are the wrong questions. Effective use of backstory isn’t a matter of finding the ideal amount. The right question about backstory, is “How do I use backstory to create compelling characters?” So that’s what I’m going to answer.
I have six main suggestions. The first three are strategies you can use for painting a character’s broad strokes in a way that is effective for the story, compelling, and also something you’re going to enjoy writing. The last three are more detail-oriented techniques you can use to flesh out those broad strokes.
Create what the story demands. You’re probably not starting from a totally blank slate. You probably have a premise in mind for your story. Is it a young-adult adventure? A heist caper? A murder mystery? That’s good, because your premise can guide you in constructing your backstory. For example: In 2007, I wrote a young adult adventure set on the Pony Express Trail. It’s a western. My YA audience suggests that the protagonist should be about 16 years old. Naturally, such a story has to take place in the American West. All together, this pointed very clearly towards a backstory about a boy whose parents were homesteaders. He was born back east, but moved west at a young age with his parents, and then grew up as a farm boy. It’s not an amazing stroke of creative genius, but it is what the story demands.
What is the character’s wound? Elizabeth Lyon, in her book Manuscript Makeover, has the great advice that memorable, realistic, vivid characters always have some sort of emotional issue they’re dealing with. She calls it their underlying “wound.” Whatever it is, it’s the thing that drives the character arc that runs in parallel with your overall story arc. For my Pony Express novel, I needed a wound that would serve to create conflict and problems for the main character to overcome. Ideally, it would be one that also relates well to the underlying premise. The Pony Express famously employed a lot of orphans, so I made my main character an orphan. I killed his parents off in a fire when he was 12 years old. His wound is that he’s angry: angry at the world, at fate, at God for taking his parents away and destroying his life. He has quite a temper, which gets him in trouble frequently. Learning to rein in his temper over the course of the book’s adventure is his character arc.
What do you love (or hate) in a character? I firmly believe that nobody can write a good novel if they don’t themselves like the story and the characters they’re working with. And why would you even want to? So while you’re thinking about backstory, think about the kinds of characters you love to read about in the genre you’re writing. For example, I’m sick to death of fantasy novels where the main character is a king or prince, or when they start out as a nobody but turn out to be the long-lost heir to the throne. It’s been done to death. So for one fantasy novel, I gave my main character a backstory that was as completely run-of-the-mill ordinary as I could. I made him an ordinary kid, apprentice to the village blacksmith, in a piddly little town out in the sticks. Lost kings and princes may be dramatic, but they’re a lot harder for readers to relate to, and I’ll take empathy over cliche drama any day. So ask yourself, in your genre, what kinds of characters do you love? What kinds do you hate? What kinds have been done to death? Let that guide you in creating your characters’ backstories.
Conduct an interview. The first three questions gave you the broad outlines of your character. Now start to flesh her out with an interview. Write up a list of questions. Longer is probably better. The trick is to start with easy stuff, like “where were you born,” “how old are you.” Work up to more personal questions like “tell me about your first boy/girlfriend,” but keep the questions focused on things that aren’t likely to have any real bearing on your plot. Finally, start asking harder questions, the kind you’d find in a serious job interview: “How do you motivate yourself to do things you need to do, but don’t really want to?” “Tell me about a time when you really failed at something and what you learned from the experience?” “Tell me about a serious disagreement you’ve had with someone, at work or in your personal life, and how you handled it.” After you’ve written the questions, answer them in the order you wrote them. What you’re doing is mentally sneaking up on the character. Answering the easy questions gives you time to train yourself to think like her and imagine what it’s like to be her. By the time you get to the serious questions, you should have a pretty good handle on who she is. Their answers serve you two-fold: on one level, the answer to “tell me about a time when you really failed at something and what you learned from the experience” gives you some interesting backstory. But on another level, it gives you insight into the character’s deeper motivations and emotional issues that are critical in portraying a realistic, distinctive person on the page.
Write her eulogy or curriculum vitae Imagine the future, after your heroine has died. What would loving friends and family say at her funeral? How would they sum up her life, her accomplishments, and the essential elements of her personality? What funny little stories would they tell? Thinking backwards from a future perspective can be an effective way to generate backstory. If you want a less maudlin take on the technique, write their C.V. entry instead. Imagine that your heroine has been selected to be featured in the next edition of Who’s Who, and you’ve been tapped to write her entry. Imagine she has already succeeded or failed at whatever your premise suggests she’s going to try, and look back from that perspective.
Get quirky This is the fun part. Brainstorm a bunch of random, weird stuff. Quirky hobbies, skills, or experiences your character might have. Maybe she used to be a skydiving instructor. Maybe she collects underground comic books from Soviet Russia. Maybe as a hobby she makes paper and binds it into handmade journals with beautiful deckled edges and dyed endpapers, which she sells at local street fairs. Maybe she makes her own cheese at home, and has built a special aging room in her garage. Think up a dozen or so downright oddball details. Then pick one or two to actually include for real in the character’s background. Now answer the question “how did she come to have those skills?” Write a little story or vignette explaining how she got hooked on Soviet-era comic books or whatever you end up choosing. The reason for doing this is because real people aren’t all-business. Yet too often, writers reveal nothing about their main characters that isn’t directly related to the plot. They miss out entirely on the character’s personal life. Everybody has a personal life, so spend some time figuring out what your character does with hers.
To sum up: Use whichever of these strategies and tips appeals to you. Don’t imagine that you have to do them in order, or even that you have to do them all. If anything, do the very opposite. Pick one, do it for a while, then switch to another. Skip around, jumping from one strategy or technique to the next as the material you discover about your character leads you. For instance, in stumbling upon a great quirk to include, you might realize that the quirk can be related to the character’s emotional wound. So spend some time interviewing or eulogizing until you discover a solid connection between the two. For example, maybe the character’s mother was from France and constantly bemoaned the lack of good cheese in America, so she took up the craft of cheese making in order to satisfy her mother’s yearning for a really good Roquefort; now that her mother has passed away, the cheese making remains as a way for her to hold on to that relationship.
You may or may not ever actually use any of this backstory in the book. But if my experience is any indicator, you will. In my next post, I’ll tackle in greater detail some techniques for using backstory material effectively in the actual implementation of your plot.
September 22, 2009 17:28 UTC