Real Characters: Backstories
A story can have a vibrant world and a brilliant plot, but it's all for naught if the characters don't act like genuine people (or elves, trolls, whatever, you get it). This blog series is about creating authentic characters who act and react realistically in fantastic and futuristic worlds.
Small Pieces of History
A character's authenticity, motivation, and alignment came from somewhere. The character's "backstory" is how she became who she is. The length and detail of her character backstory is somewhat subject to her age. For example, a forty-year-old will have more history than an eighteen-year-old, unless maybe the eighteen-year-old has been through a lot and the forty-year-old has had an exceptionally dull life.
Backstory writing is tricky because the more detailed it is, the less of it ends up in the story. Reveal too much information about a character and, well, it's no longer her backstory; it's turned into the story. Instead of including all her backstories, have a small piece of character history come up in conversation or reveal a tidbit of her past at the right narrative moment.
Even if most of it doesn't end up in your final draft, it's handy to know the formative elements of your character's past to help you understand her motivations and choices as she moves through your world. Consider the other traits you've given her so far and think about how those traits developed. What happened to her that made her chaotic good? Why are they motivated by financial gain? Etc.
Formative bits of backstories don't have to come from significant life events, though they often do. Consider this life-altering bit of information delivered by the narrator's grandfather in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451:
"Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you're there.
It doesn't matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that's like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime."
The character's conversation with his grandfather on the importance of things left behind is a formative part of his history and motivated this character's curiosity and eventual protection of books throughout the story.
To practice your backstory skills, choose a character, and write a piece of their backstory that helped form their personality. For example: Let's say I have a lawful good character raised by a mother in law enforcement. Or a character who is motivated by altruism because they grew up penniless. If these elements end up in your narrative, you can breathe life into them with fascinating details
Next week is the last blog in this series and it's all about dialogue!
Other Blogs in this Series:
Real Characters; Unreal Worlds
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