Friday, February 14, 2020

4 Essential Tips for Developing Character Backstory

Know Your Characters, Know Their History

We often know our characters' personality traits, darkest secrets, and greatest hopes. But do we know the why behind it all? Do we know what shaped them to become the characters we are now going to torment through a novel, and maybe entire series, until they grow and develop into the shining people we all hope we can become? 

Or devolve into something we sincerely hope we will never meet. It's up to you. They're your characters, after all. Either way, knowing their background as you write will enrich the story you produce and make it real for readers.

Recently I was asked to write a history for the women's group of my local church. Just a 1-year history, highlighting important events and changes among our group. At first, I dreaded the job. But once I got started, sorting through old facebook posts and digging into the depths of my memory -  (Did anything happen last April??) - I found the process a blast.

What's more, it got me thinking. This could be a fun and extremely useful way to develop characters for novels. 

1. Break Your Characters' History into Meaningful Chunks.

Depending on the age of the character you are focusing on, this could be months, years, or decades. Honestly, it could even be days or weeks. The reason for this is that we are not simply splitting the character's life into equal chunks of time. Instead, we want to develop a history of life experiences that matter. Several could occur within one day. More often, they are spread over larger periods.

Once you've split your character's life into useful spans of time, dig into them. Each period is like a micro-story. If you decide to go deep in exploring backstory, be sure to also write a short one or two sentence summary of what happened and how it influenced your character. That way you can do a quick and easy review without needing to reread all the thousands of words you may write!

2. Ask Questions 

What significant events shaped this character's life? Which of these events is most relevant to their character arc in this novel? How would your character be different if one of the events didn't happen? What choices might this character make based on knowledge they gained through specific experiences? 

Have they lived in regions or cultures that are different from where they are in the current story? How does that affect their interactions with other characters?

What kind of baggage or damage does this characters carry due to things they've done or gone through? What exactly caused the dysfunctional thought processes or behaviors your character now struggles with? How did they deal with problems in the past? How are they different now? Who did they lean on? Who created difficulties for them? 

As you get started with exploring your character's history, other meaningful question specific to your novel will arise. This is a very useful exercise, especially if you are stuck on a plot point.

3. Import Pics

We all know a picture is worth a thousand words, right? Not only that, but photos can prompt ideas and storylines. So it's extremely useful to add photos to your character's history. Easier said than done, you may think. 

But honestly, there are endless sources for pics to spur your imagination. Keep in mind that unless you plan to publish, pin or blog the history you're creating, you don't need to worry about whether the images you choose are copyrighted. They are for your eyes only, sitting quietly in your notes, inspiring you. Search google images. There are tons. 

If you think you might want to share this history someday, choose photos from pixabay, Pablo, or Wikimedia Commons. Another useful approach is to create a pinterest page (here's mine!) where you pin images that remind you of your character, their life experiences, or the environments where they have lived. 

4. Organize Your History

You can create your history in a simple word document, evernote, or my favorite for storytelling - scrivener. If you use scrivener for writing, you can also have instant access to the history you create for each character. 

I love to keep my research, character details, plot organization, and backstory writing handy while I'm writing my novels. Scrivener provides a great way to have easy access to this information. However, if you use scrivener, be sure to compress your pics or the app will bog down. Another option is to import links to webpages.

Whatever format you choose, you can organize each character's history by breaking it up into the time periods you've chosen, exploring meaningful questions, and adding photos for the character at different times in their life as well as photos for significant life experiences.

What are some of your favorite strategies for developing character backstory?

No comments: