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Character Backstory: Dos and Don’ts

Dec 22, 2016
David Jolly
Publishing Trainee

So, if you read my post on Antagonists and Protagonists, I spoke about how you need a compelling antagonist to make your protagonist interesting. Now, I’m going to talk a bit about how to actually do that. The keyword here is ‘Backstory’.It goes without saying, but for your characters to be truly interesting they need a history. Back story, it’s not just about what’s happening to the characters in the story you’re writing but what happened to them to get them there. Why is the antagonist doing what he’s doing? How did the protagonist get into this situation? In the case of romance: who were they before they met, what ghosts from the past have shaped who they are today?

So, without further ado, here are some dos and don’ts for creating compelling characters:

Do:

 
Keep secrets from the readers. Create an air of mystery around who your characters are and why they’re there. Let the reader slowly piece together your character’s past as the story goes on. Like any new friendship, you don’t learn everything about someone in a day; you discover new things about them slowly over time. This will come up later, but don’t forget to make them flawed.

Don’t:

 
Give long drawn out expositional dumps about each character as we meet them. Let the reader find out about who the character is rather than being told. This is a tricky one because you need to give some details, but it’s a line that needs to be walked carefully. It can be boring to just read pages of character description and forced backstory, it also can kill the pacing. Consider:

“The shadows came alive as he moved, never making a sound, never missing a step, and before I realise what was happening it was over, and he was lording over me, with that familiar look of disapproving.”

VS.

“John had always been a quiet man. As a child his family used to joke that he could walk across a wooden floor in tap shoes and never make a sound. When they died tragically in a car accident he sent to an orphanage where he spent the rest of his childhood. He continued to practise the art of stealth, and at 18 joined the army where he truly perfected his skills. 9 years passed working covert operations, either for his home government or on loan to their allies. When he fell out with them, he ended up in a small flat in the city, then after failing to reintegrate into society decided to turn to private security, and ultimately vigilantism. Now as I sat cowering in the corner watching him move like a shadow across the warehouse floor, silently dispatching the gunmen I realised I still had a lot to learn.”

Some interesting details, and yes readers want to know more about a character, but give it in bits not bowls, and let the reader’s imagination fill in some gaps.

Do:

 
Justify your character’s actions (even the truly horrible ones). If your villain chain-locks an orphanage door and sets the building on fire find a way to make it make perfect sense to the reader. The more believable a character’s actions are, the more engaged your readers are. Look at this, for instance:

“He’d spent the worst years of his life in that orphanage and as he stared at it now all those memories came flooding back. He cracked his knuckles then slipped the chain around the front door while tears welled in his eyes. He was going to remove it from the world once and for all. He was going to set those children free, free from a life of pain and misery, free to not turn into him. Because, deep down, he hated himself more than he’d ever hated the people who abused him. It was an old building. A wooden building. He waited until he could hear the sirens before fleeing the blaze.”

It is particularly important in the case of an antagonist that you can, on some level, understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. It also creates a deeper connection with the protagonist if the reader can relate to their conflict. If you can create a scenario where your reader looks at the situation the protagonist is in and thinks: “What are they going to do?” or “I’m so glad I don’t have to make that decision”, you’ve got them.

Don’t:

 
Make your main characters perfect. No one is perfect, To lift up your main characters as the smartest and strongest people in the world not only makes them harder to relate to, but also removes the agency of the story. If the reader doesn’t feel like the heroes are in any danger of failing it nullifies the point of the story. Now, I’ve never read Twilight, but I have heard lots of people talk about how much they preferred the side characters because they could be flawed and have personalities, whereas Bella and Edward were locked into a generic insta-love story. Even Batman has nightmares.

Do:

 
Research. It might sound strange but getting the correct chemical name of a medication and its dosage, or a real street name in a real town where a character grew up, or how long it takes to travel from Brazil to England by boat, matters to some people. Each little hook-point your reader can relate to is another connection they’ll have to your story. The more like non-fiction your character’s past sounds like, the more believable they’ll be. Take the time to really think out your character’s lives, where they came from, what they were like as children, teenagers. It doesn’t all have to go in the book, but if you know it, then you can explain your characters’ better.

Don’t:

 
Don’t be afraid to write characters who make you uncomfortable, who do and say things that make your own skin crawl, or who make you want to throw coffee cups and scream, “Why can’t you see that she loves you, you fool”! If you’ve mentally crafted the backstory of a boy who has been hurt and hurt and is now just too scared when confronted by love, let him run away and screw things up. Even if you and your readers will hate him for it, and then hate yourselves because you know his past, and understand why he’s doing it, and secretly wish you could have told the girl to not come on so strong.

In conclusion, if you want to have characters that readers love, hate, fear, whatever, they need to be whole people. Take the time to think about whom they are and where they’ve come from. Look at how they ended up in the situation they’re in, and then very gently let the reader discover that world you’ve created in your mind. Lead them through the story as it happens, occasionally glimpsing back at why and how they got to where they are when your story takes place. And have faith in the reader’s imagination.

 

Here is your character backstory cheatsheet:

Do: Keep secrets from the readers

Don’t: Give long drawn out expositional dumps about each character as we meet them

Do: Justify your character’s actions

Don’t: Make your main characters perfect

Do: Research

Don’t: Don’t be afraid to write characters who make you uncomfortable