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#FirstDraft60 Day 11 — Write Out Your Main Characters’ Backstories

Friday, September 11, 2015

#FirstDraft60 | KayeDacus.comAs the culmination of everything we’ve done with our characters this week, we are going to pull everything we know about them together and write down—and discover more through the process—their backstories. One of the worst things we can do in our writing is not develop our characters well. This comes either from a lack of knowledge of how to do it or not spending enough time getting to know the characters at a deeper level.

In Noah Lukeman’s writing craft book The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life, the first THREE chapters of eight are about characterization. There are dozens of books on the market about characterization—to help with everything from naming them to giving them careers to describing what they look like. That’s in addition to general books about writing that contain chapters or entire sections on building believable characters.

“Begin with an individual and you will find that you have created a type;
begin with a type and you will find that you have created—nothing.”
~F. Scott Fitzgerald

What Fitzgerald was saying is that if our characters do not stand out as unique individuals—if instead they fall into “types”—then our writing will be empty.

On a road trip with my family more than thirty years ago, we took along a little questionnaire booklet called “So, You Think You Know Your Parents?” Instead of just trying to answer all the questions ourselves, my sister and I used it as an opportunity to get to interview our parents to get to know them better. The beginning of it contains questions like:

When are your parents’ birthdays?
What cities and states were your parents born in?
Were they named for anyone?
Did they have childhood nicknames?
What was their favorite subject in school?
When they were children, what did they argue most about with their parents?
How did they meet?
Where did they go on their first date? (My parents went to see The Sound of Music for their first date. Is it any wonder I love that movie?)

And so on. Later in the booklet, the questions get a little more in depth:

If your parents found a wallet with $100 in it, would they try to find its owner or keep the money?
What one food do your parents absolutely refuse to eat?
Are they open to changing their minds after making a decision?
What was the happiest moment in each of their lives? The saddest? The funniest? The scariest? (My dad’s being sent to Vietnam, for both of them.) The most embarrassing? The most important?
What irritates them more than anything else?
What do they worry about more than anything else?
Do they always believe “honesty is the best policy”?
What would they say is their worst habit?
What part of the newspaper do they read first?
What do they think about when they daydream?

“When the characters are ready, the story will come out of me.”
~Jeff Shaara

There are as many different ways to go about learning who your characters are as there are writers. Many writers talk about “interviewing” their characters during the development process. Here are three examples I have run across:
Character Background Worksheets
Character Chart
Character Profile Worksheet

I have tried each of these over the years—and while they’re fun for characters who come to me, but whose stories I do not plan to write immediately, I don’t usually bother with them . . . I find that much of what’s on them isn’t relevant to my particular character or the story I’m developing.

Rather than rely on charts or interviews, I go through the process I’ve taken you through this week. I start at the macro level—determining the basics about the heroine and hero from their jobs to their physical attributes—and then I start focusing in on more specific details (such as S.H.A.P.E.). Then I get down to the micro—I write out the character’s entire backstory: their family background, where they grew up, what they were like as a child/teen/young adult, where they went to school, what their interests were, and so on. For example (from Stand-In Groom.):

Anne Hawthorne

  • Born and raised in Bonneterre, Louisiana.
  • Her parents were world-renowned magazine photographers who traveled extensively and left her with her grandparents or her mother’s brothers or sister. Anne begged her parents to take her along, but they went places with unstable governments, diseases, etc., that they didn’t want to expose her to. This left Anne with the subconscious feeling of being unloved and that she had to work to earn her parents’ love.
  • For the first years of her life, she spent a net total of about six months a year with her parents.
  • When she was eight years old, they surprised her with a trip with them to Washington, D.C. for the 4th of July. The commuter plane they were on to get from Bonneterre to New Orleans crashed.  Only Anne and one other person out of 25 survived.
  • For a year, while she recovered from her burns and injuries, Anne lived with her grandparents, at their rural home outside of the city. Her grandmother, a retired teacher, tutored her, and when Anne was tested to determine what grade she should go back in, she was able to skip ahead a grade.
  • Because her grandparents lived so far out of town, Maggie, Anne’s mother’s only sister, and her husband offered for Anne to come live with them. While Anne loved her aunt and uncle and their four sons, she never allowed herself to become completely attached to them, not knowing when or if they might get tired of her and send her to live with someone else. After all, when her parents would leave her behind when they traveled, she would get bumped from home to home until they came back.
  • The scars from her burns ran up the left side of her neck and onto her cheek. The teasing from the other children in school made her turn inward and become very isolated. Her cousins tried to protect her, but the other kids knew better than to do it around them and Anne didn’t talk about it. She also got teased about reaching her full height of 5’11” by age 13 and being larger-sized than was considered popular.

This is just the beginning of three pages that explain who Anne is and what her psychological makeup is. And here’s Alex’s backstory page in my OneNote Story Bible for my current project:
Alex Backstory Page

Does your character feel like a real, unique person to you? Do you feel like you know enough about him or her as a person that you’d be able to answer any of the questions I listed above? Have you interviewed your character and yet feel he or she is holding something back from you? Have you delved deeply enough into the backstory to truly know where the character is coming from? What techniques/books/questionnaires do you use to get to know your characters?

Assignment: Write out the full backstory (as full as you can make it at this point) for each of your main/viewpoint characters.

For Discussion:
What did you learn about your character(s) through the process of writing out the backstory that you didn’t know before completing this exercise? Did it give you any ideas for plot points or scenes that you can include in your story?

  1. Lori permalink
    Friday, September 11, 2015 11:17 am

    Again, I just want to thank you for doing this. It’s really helping me!


  2. Friday, September 11, 2015 2:11 pm

    So, while looking up some info for working on backstories at lunch today, I was struck with an idea of the scene where Stone meets Alex’s daughter and ex-husband–and through that figures out Alex’s famous-author alter ego.

    It turned into a 3,146-word chapter. 😉



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