Monday 28 August 2017

Backstories & Character Building - The Creative Process


Last week I talked about the things that go into building characters (found here.) This week I'm gonna talk about those all important backstories. Every character needs one, well I say every character, I mean that the one you only have in one scene who says two words probably doesn't, but the main characters all need a backstory of some kind. As a writer of several years I've learned the hard way that sometimes you gotta know what motivates your characters and sometimes it can be something simple in their backstory, sometimes not. But anyway, here's some of my tips for backstories.

Yes, I know, you want your character to have survived everything from Ebola to their latest break up and while some of those things you've included can matter, it doesn't have to be everything and the kitchen sink. There's a lot of talk around that for a backstory and character to matter, it needs to be tragic. That you can only build strong characters by putting them through hell and coming out the other side and still be standing. There are other ways to build a strong character, but as far as backstories go, you need to make sure it's believable and real, otherwise your readers are gonna be raising their eyebrows and wondering how they made it through all that, and what the point of it was.


Along with making it real, it's a good idea to keep it simple. While there will be some characters who deserve and have a complicated backstory, having every character like that just adds to the difficulty in getting readers to believe and relate to the characters. A complicated backstory can be hard to follow and hard to relate to. While it does depend on the world you're writing in, and the rules of that world, it's better to keep the backstory simple and if you must have a complicated one, only do it once.

I know what you're thinking, that to be a strong character you need to have had something tragic happen that you worked through and have come out the other side of. That's both not true and also kinda dangerous thinking. Being a victim of a violent crime is tragic and it can impact you, it usually does impact you in your personality and the way you view the world and the way you act, but not every character who is strong needs to have that as their backstory. There are strong people, both physically and mentally, who have never been through the loss of a parent, or through a violent crime. You don't need to equate strength with pain, either physical, emotional or mental.

When creating characters, I go for the more minimalist than into extreme detail, but my method doesn't have to be your method and it's all about what works for you. When I look at the backstory for my characters, a lot of it is worked out while writing. However, I've been doing this for a long time and have learned about what works for me and which rules to follow. If you're just starting out, there is no shame in going all out with your characters, both backstory and personality and all the rest. Just because I find it easier to do as I go does not make you less of a writer if you don't. It's all about getting those words on a page and bringing those characters to life.

So those are my four pointers when it comes to making characters and building up their backstories. To give you an example of how I make this work for me, here's what I did. Tara is the character that I've developed the most simply because I was writing her story for about fifteen years. So when I started back in the day, I have two note cards. One was her description and physical make up. So she was tall, skinnyish, with short, brown hair. I had notes about her personality, such as her likes and dislikes, but as I've said before I didn't go into huge detail, so looking at them now (and from memory) I know that she had a fondness for History but she chose D.T (Design Technology, like woodwork but more complicated and now called Graphics in the UK) not because she liked to build or had any interest in it, but because she thought it was an easy lesson for her GCSEs.

Backstory wise, I knew her mother was dead, but she didn't witness it in the true sense of the word. She was six when her mother was killed, and was, by all accounts, shielded from that, but the death brought forward her gift, which meant that as she grew up, she was able to touch something of her mother's and be able to witness those last moments. Apart from that, she was, and still is, a pretty average teen. She was isolated at school by choice because of the connection the kids made to her famous father and the way most people would latch onto her to see if he would introduce them to their favourite celeb. Enter Kaolin who is pretty much the opposite of her.

So that's Tara and her backstory, going into other characters of mine you'll see that none of them have a huge and convoluted backstory, they have a pretty simple background that anyone could have. It's what makes my characters believable and it's what engages the readers when reading their stories. Because I generally write in first person, I need to know my characters better so that I can be sure to be speaking in their voice. Your mileage may, of course, vary.

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