Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Building Character Backstory

Story Steps Five 

As I was winding up my undergrad degree many, many years ago, for fun I took a Creative Writing class. Somewhere along the way I lost the handy dandy writing how-to book we used in the class, but one recommendation stuck with me: write a detailed biography for characters prior to writing the story.

After the class, I subscribed to several writing magazines. They echoed the author’s opinion that a writer had to “get to know” story characters completely before you could write about them. Over the years, I read articles and attended workshops that abounded  with character lists. Hair color. Eye color. Date of birth. Educational background. Height. Weight. Favorite foods. Foods dislikes.

I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

I wasted a lot of time writing biographies full of trivial information for characters. Information I never used and soon forgot after writing it down. Gradually, my biographies changed. I started concentrating on events that shaped the characters into their current worldview. What in their past had molded them into the person they were now? I decided if I was going to spend time writing about my characters, it seemed best to create information I was actually going to use in the story.

Keep in mind when I started my writing journey, the word backstory hadn’t been invented yet. According to Miriam-Webster, the word’s first recorded use was in 1982, but that doesn’t mean the word became well known that year. It just means someone used it for the first time in writing. When I finally came across the word “backstory” in my perennial quest for writing advice, I just thought it was a different word for character biographies.

Therefore, I didn’t pay much attention to it. I just continued to write character biographies my way without even realizing I had developed my own method for writing backstory.

As with so many words associated with writing, backstory has several meanings depending on which expert wrote the article, blog, or book. Even the dictionaries differ.

Years ago, at a writing workshop, one instructor didn’t really use the term backstory but suggested you record at least three life events that happened in your characters' pasts that influence who they are now. His suggestion helped me focus a little better and reduce the sprawl of my backstories, but I can’t let go of creating characters with more dimensions than that seemed to suggest.

I wanted more history.

Probably because I used to be a history instructor and had learned there are always many layers to historical events.

Gradually, I developed my own approach to writing backstory and it seems to have more to do with building a character’s internal story rather than their physical looks. I discovered this a few years ago when an editor wanted to buy my short story, “Love to the Rescue.”

To entice me to agree, she actually had a cover artist put together a really cute cover. During the process, she realized I had never truly described the hero–his height, his eye color–that type of thing. She was amazed she hadn’t realized the lack until it came time to create a hero for the cover!

Actually, I didn’t notice either. I do usually have some physical description of my characters, but in that particular story, I didn’t. Or I did and it got cut in revisions!

Anyway, I loved the concept of the cover, but the contract had me signing away every right under the sun. I just wasn’t comfortable doing that and decided to Indie publish the short story. You may have noticed I didn’t put any characters on the cover. 

I’m not saying the author doesn’t need a basic grasp of his or her story characters. It helps to have a general idea of who they are, physically, mentally, psychologically, etc. But I no longer write detailed biographies full of minutia when I sit down to write a story. Instead I concentrate on events that made them who they are. I figure we (the characters and I) are in this for the long haul and I will get to know them better as I write about them.