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Get Set: Developing Your Backstory #ReadySetWrite

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

#ReadySetWrite: Get Set--Developing Your Backstory | KayeDacus.comNow that you have your premise, you know (most of) your characters are, you know where/when your setting is, it’s time to start getting set—setting yourself up to be ready to actually write.

Developing Character Backstories
I’ve mentioned before on the blog that one of the first things I do when I get a story idea is sit down and write a summary—call it a synopsis or a treatment, what it is, in reality, is going through the steps I discussed in the “Get Ready” part of this series. Once I knew that much, if it was something I decided to work on immediately (and not set aside because I was already on contracted deadline for something else), I sat down and started writing another set of summaries—this time of my characters. Who were they? Where did they come from? What were they doing a month, a week, an hour before the moment they step into the story? What will they be doing after their role in the story ends?

This is known as giving your characters extended lives. Just as you exist before and after the few weeks you might spend caught up in some project or conflict, your characters need an existence beyond the scope of your story in order to come across as real people, rather than just two-dimensional caricatures who vanish like a puff of smoke as soon as their role in the story is over.

This also gives you a chance to determine your characters’ connections—with each other and with your storyworld at large. Someone isn’t just “the mayor” of the city. Maybe she’s married to the fire chief. Maybe their oldest daughter is the star athlete at the high school. Madam Mayor may have gone to the large state university a few towns over—and almost gotten expelled due to a sorority prank which lots of money from her parents to the school managed to fix . . . but she’s been trying to keep it quiet and live it down ever since, and because of that, she’s dedicated her life to public service and volunteerism. Not because she enjoys it, but because she feels guilty. So she’s now connected to: the city government, the fire department, the local high school, the university in the other town, a sorority, and any number of organizations with which she volunteers—and she’s connected with people in each of those places. People who may help create conflict in her life (someone from her college days who’s now blackmailing her for contracts from the city government?) or help support her through those times (her best friend who’s the head of a charity for victims of domestic violence, who may be the first to notice the strain in Madam Mayor from being blackmailed). And if the head of the domestic violence shelter is your main character, not the mayor, imagine what kind of conflict this will create for your heroine while she’s also trying to deal with the main conflict of the story!

See how extending the characters’ lives work in coming up with more and more ideas? Not only will this help in making your characters more dynamic and more relatable to readers, it weaves nicely into your synopsis/story summary in helping to generate ideas for more/new conflicts to enrich your story.

Developing Your Setting’s Backstory

But my story is set in New York City in the present day. I don’t need to “develop” my setting. It already exists.

Yes, but—what about the place(s) where your characters live? Their neighborhoods, their homes, the places they frequent? Are you going to use real stores, restaurants, apartment buildings, street names? Or are you going to make them up? How will your characters move through the setting (car, public transit, train, horse and buggy)? How does the environment in which your characters find themselves affect AND effect who your characters are, how they dress, how they interact with the setting and with others? People living in northern Minnesota in late January aren’t going to go for a stroll outside for a romantic chat, while others living on the Alabama Gulf Coast might.

What are environmental obstacles that might create conflict for your characters? Anything from weather to transportation to the people who live and/or work around them.

For those using a fictional setting—whether real-world or sci-fi/fantasy—now is the time for world-building. I hope to do a more in-depth series on that later this year because there’s so much that goes into this, especially in otherworldly applications. In real-world fictional settings, we at least have some absolutes that we don’t have to worry about—gravity, continents, water, food, etc. Our readers are already familiar with Earth-based life and how it’s lived. People writing sci-fi or fantasy have a much bigger task here in creating everything almost from scratch.

In both real and fictional settings, some of the most important “backstory” details to work out ahead of time are:

  • In what season(s) does your story take place. How does the weather have an effect on what happens in your story? (If at all?)
  • What is the culture of your setting? What makes the locale you’re using unique? What are the local customs—local celebrations, festivals, way of life? How can you incorporate those into your characters and story?
  • What are the geographic elements that will/could have an impact on your plot and characters?
  • How does your setting (including locale, customs, weather, landscape) create a mood for your story?
  • WHY are your characters in this specific setting?

Obviously those are just the tip of the iceburg. But freewriting about your setting (along with copious amounts of research) will lead you to other important factors you might not have even considered.

Freewriting Your Backstory
One of the things to keep in mind when working on backstories—have fun with this and don’t feel like you’re locking yourself into anything. Remember, we’re still in the “get set” portion of this exercise. You’re not actually writing your story yet—your simply exploring ideas.

Anything you write during this part of preparation can change once you start writing your first draft—and you should allow for that to happen. If something you’ve come up with in backstory doesn’t work, whether it’s in your characters or setting—change it. But if it’s drastic, you might want to do the backstory freewriting exercise again, incorporating this new aspect, to see what other parts of the backstory it might affect and change.

Freewriting backstory this way should feel organic. If you want to write it in present tense, first person, do it. If you want to write it in third person, past tense, that’s your choice. Bullet lists, circles, Venn diagrams . . . whatever works best for you to churn up the creative ideas for your characters and setting and to generate new ideas for your story.

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