[originally published in 2016; updated and revised, 2021]
Have you ever read the last few chapters of a book extra slowly because you weren’t yet ready to say goodbye to the characters?
Can you list favorite characters that you have fallen deeply and irrevocably in love with?
I’m willing to bet that if you’re a reader, you can. We all can. My list starts with Anne Shirley of the Anne of Green Gables series that I read and loved as a young girl. My most recent favorites are Arya Stark, Catelyn Stark, and Jon Snow in the Game of Thrones series.
In Stein on Writing, Sol Stein nails that feeling in the following quote:
“During the many years in which I was an editor and publisher, what did I hope for when I picked up a manuscript? I wanted to fall in love, to be swept up as quickly as possible into the life of a character so interesting that I couldn’t bear to shut the manuscript in a desk overnight. It went home with me so that I could continue reading it. We know what love is, we think of the other person at odd moments, we wonder where they are, what they are doing, we seem a bit crazy to the rest of the world. That’s exactly the feeling I have about characters I fall in love with in books” (49-50).
Me too!! I love it when someone captures exactly how I feel.
So…how do authors do it? How do they create characters with whom we fall in love?
They develop them from the inside out. They tell us why these characters act like they do, so we understand and relate to these characters.
They do it through a well-developed and delivered backstory.
What is backstory?
The backstory is the character’s history that gives them a reason for their attitudes and actions. It’s made up not only of where they grew up, their education etc. but of those key moments that define them.
Think about your own life. You can probably identify key moments that shifted your thinking, beliefs, or attitudes. For example, I can identity several instances as a child with my parents that infuriated me. I swore than that I would never do that when I became a mom, and I haven’t.
I can also think about one time during junior high when I wasn’t a good friend because I was afraid of how I would be treated if I stood up for a friend. I’m still ashamed of my lack of taking action during that incident, and ever since, I’ve been a much better friend and true to my values.
These moments are my back story. If I was a character in a situation where it was an honor vs. social status situation, based on my back story, I’d choose the honorable route. As a thirteen-year-old, I went with social status. Do you see the difference?
Our histories have shaped who we are which dictates both how we make decisions and how we perceive the world. That’s our backstory.
If an author handles backstory well, they achieve two goals:
1. We understand why characters act they way they do.
2. Ultimately, we empathize with the characters.
Why is back story important?
1) Back story provides the reasons behind a character’s actions.
For example, if we have a character run into a 7-11 for a drink. Their back story will dictate if they’re going to grab a vitamin water or a Monster energy drink depending on if they’re a health nut or exhausted from working or partying too much.
Imagine a robber comes into the store and pulls a gun. Your character has a variety of options. They might dive into the walk in cooler and hide behind cases of beer and soda. They might confront the the robber and try to talk them out of killing somebody. Or perhaps they leap the counter to help the clerk and calm them down.
Their decision, whatever it is, must be in line with who they are, and it MUST be believable for that character. All of these decisions come down to back story.
Let me give you an example. In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen sacrifices herself to save her little sister at The Reaping. Even though this is the event that launches the entire story, it doesn’t happen on the first page. Instead, Suzanne Collins spends the first pages giving the readers a glimpse into Katniss’ life.
We learn that her family is starving and poor. She regularly breaks the law to escape the District 12 boundaries to hunt and feed her loved ones. We learn that her father was killed, and her mother hasn’t recovered from losing her husband.
Right from the beginning of the story, we begin to feel for this girl because she is willing to take such risks to take care of the people she loves. It’s because of this that we understand her actionsorder wellbutrin online uk when she sacrifices herself at the Reaping. We already know that she will do what she needs to do to care for those she loves. And she does this throughout the entire novel, even in the last scene. She’s ready to sacrifice herself to save Peeta and prove the government wrong.
And that is the entire point of a character’s back story.
In another example from Divergent, Four starts off as a somewhat mysterious character. Tris is drawn to him, but he seems somewhat cold and distant. His nickname is another mystery. It isn’t until we learn that his mother abandoned him as a baby and that his dad beat him do we begin to understand why he acts the way he does.
The backstory gives the characters reasons to act the way they do.
If you have an arrogant character, why are they arrogant? Is it a defense mechanism because at home they are told constantly that they’re worthless? Perhaps they’re trying to prove their own worth? Or is it because their parents have told them their entire lives how amazingly perfect they are?
2) A character’s back story gives them depth, so the reader empathizes with them.
We’ve all read stories that we didn’t like much because we just didn’t connect with the characters. As writers, it’s our job to create characters that our readers can connect with.
We don’t care about characters based on what they look like or how they’re dressed, we care about them because of WHO they are and WHAT they do, both of which are dictated by their backstory.
Remember though, creating backstory is not about making readers “like” your character. That’s not the goal.
You want your readers to understand and empathize with your character. I’m sure you can think of characters that you don’t like but that you empathize with. Some examples would be Snape, who’s horribly mean but we also know that he was in love with Lilly Potter. He’s also an undercover agent for the good guys, so being mean is part of the “role” he’s playing.
Or think of Walter from Breaking Bad. He does some AWFUL stuff, like making meth and selling it to kids. BUT, he’s doing it because he’s been diagnosed with cancer, his wife is pregnant, and his son is handicapped. He’s desperate to do something to make sure they’re going to be okay if and when he dies. No matter how deplorable the idea of making meth is, he’s doing it for a noble reason, so we understand and empathize with him.
When I watched the show, did I like Walter? Not at all. But did I empathize with his situation? You bet.
Draco Malfoy is the same kind of character. On one level, he wants to do the right thing, but his father is demanding that he follow in the family’s evil footsteps. As he gets older, he struggles more and more with this conflict.
Remember when you’re developing a character’s backstory that good characters have bad things in their lives and bad guys have good things in their lives. Nobody is all good or all bad. Mix it up and you’ll create characters that your readers will care about.
Backstory can also explain odd behavior quirks. For example, in Twilight, Belle is always falling down and calling herself a klutz. It’s an odd character quirk that Stephanie Meyer never explains.
Why is this character so completely physically inept, yet when she’s being chased she runs just fine? Had Meyer explained that Belle started life in leg braces because of some medical issue or that she’d gotten teased relentlessly for falling down during a race in the fourth grade, so now she’s always afraid of falling which makes her trip and fall, I might have understood and empathized with this character trait. Since Meyer never explained it, Belle’s klutziness becomes completely annoying.
Once you figure out your character basics, the first next step is to go deeper and build a backstory to let us into your character. Help us to understand them.