Character: B is for Backstory

atoz [2014] - BANNER - 910

Today, I went to the passport office to turn in my application, so I can invade the U.K. later this year.  It will be so nice to have an actual vacation, far away from the yapping dogs and revving low-riders that have overtaken my neighborhood.  Perhaps I’ll win the Lotto drawing before then and I can afford to move.

 This will do. 

This will do.

Image: xedos4/

 On to A-Z!

B is for backstory.

 In what sort of culture did your character grow up?  Whether we like to admit it or not, our backgrounds influence what sort of adults we’ll be.  While backstory doesn’t have to be a part of your narrative, you should definitely think about for your major characters.

The three male protagonists in my novel Rose’s Hostage had absentee fathers and one who was abusive.  This shaped them in various ways:

  •  Pierce the detective adopted his wife’s dad as a surrogate father
  •  Joshua the bank robber values independence and control
  •  John Cook the serial killer rebelled silently, underneath a façade of decorum

Libby the hostage also never knew her father, though she spent summers with her grandparents and did have a male influence.  Still, she seeks a bond with a strong man who perhaps to her is the fulfillment of a wish fantasy, a hero type she has built up in her head who will swoop down and save her from her humdrum life.  Too bad the one she finds (Joshua) is more of an anti-hero.  Libby is every woman who ever fell in love with the wrong man.

Single mothers raising kids alone is common.  Will this bond the character to another one over their shared background?  Will they seek to put it behind them?

Actors who study or practice Method acting talk about motivation.  As a writer, you’ll seek the same inner contemplation for your major characters.  To make them well-rounded, you will have to think of them as real people, with hopes, dreams, traumas, and fears.  They feel all the same things you do, in varying levels of intensity.

 Even this guy. 

Even this guy.


 So how to do this?   It’s not always easy to identify with people in situations that are alien to you, and that can make it difficult to write a character’s behavior authentically.  If you can draw parallels to the situation, you might find moments in your own life where you can recall a similar feeling.

You can elicit your own past here, but eventually, as a writer, you’ll have to imagine scenes to which you have no possible real-life connection.  Re acting techniques again (so many of them are useful for writers; or maybe it’s just me, because I did so much theater in high school and college), Stella Adler modified the Method and urged her students to use the scene’s circumstances to stimulate their imaginations.  Adler also advocated doing research to understand different experiences better.  (I do this too!)

Another helpful tool is character worksheets.  I love these; I make one for each of my major characters and even paste pictures of people or drawings in them that resemble how they look in my mind.  Many of them have questions or list items where you can jot down things like your protagonist’s socioeconomic status, whether they have siblings, where they spent most of their childhood, etc.  Imagine you are your character as you fill it out.

You can make your own, or google character worksheets for writers.  There are thousands of them.


Reveal backstory carefully; avoid the “information dump,” where all your backstory suddenly shows up in the narrative in one large clump.  Work tidbits in here and there.  Let the reader get to know the character as we read (I need to work on this one).  Your tale may not make much use of all the background, but your characters will have more depth if you think about where they came from.

2 thoughts on “Character: B is for Backstory

  1. I take backstory development very seriously in my writing, probably too much so. I want to know why my characters are doing things as much as what they are doing on the page. I am a fan of the character interview sheet. I do one for each of my main characters between my first draft and rewrite draft. It helps a lot.

    • I usually don’t change my first worksheet, but it’s fun to go back and look at it later. As the book progresses, sometimes the characters do things I didn’t expect them to!

      On Thu, Apr 3, 2014 at 6:45 AM, Graphomaniac – Elizabeth West wrote:


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