Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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November 12, 2021

Digging Up Bones - What's Your Character's Backstory?

by Eldred Bird

Our characters need to be relatable and have depth so they’re easy to get attached to. One of the highest compliments I've received about my writing is about my characters. Seeing as how I’m kind of attached to them, that makes my whole month. So how do I create that bond between a character and a reader? One word—backstory.

If you really want to figure out where a character is going in your story, you first need to know where they came from. Everyone has a past—you, me, your best friend, the stranger at your door delivering the pizza—everyone. Our past experiences have shaped who we are now and how we react to the world around us. It should be the same for your characters.

Our job as authors is to dig into our character's past to find out where they hid the bodies.

Real People have Real Problems

There’s no such thing as a perfect human, so there should be no perfect characters in your stories either. Heroes with no flaws have no depth. There’s no story to tell if your MC is infallible, as they can never be put in a situation they can’t handle. Flaws, weaknesses, and personality quirks are what make characters interesting and real.

Most of these traits have their roots in the character’s early years. You need look no further than comic books to find heroes with tragic pasts. Every origin story is pumped full of pain, loss, and failure, usually leading them down a path of vigilante justice in an effort to heal old wounds. Most of these heroes could really benefit from some intense anger management counseling, which leads me to my next tip.

Talk to your Characters

Yorick - the skull interviewee

 When I create a new character, I like to get to know them before ever putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). The best way I’ve found to do this is sit down and talk to them. As we go through the interview process any interesting details about their past that come up get jotted down in my character file. I keep the conversation going until I can see their face, hear their voice, and understand their facial expressions and body language. After a few sessions like this, the character becomes so cemented in my mind that they become real to me.

The more real a character becomes, the easier it is to write from their perspective. Like an actor, I can put myself in their shoes and view the world through their eyes. It’s at this point where the magic starts to happen, and they begin telling me their story. The narrative becomes more personal when the character takes over and starts driving the bus.

Find Real World Examples

If I’m having trouble digging up the backstory for a particular character, I try to find real people to use as a foundation. Friends, family, and coworkers are all fair game, but I don’t make a carbon copy of anyone. I pick and choose details to shape a unique individual with their own special combination of traits. I’ve also been known to go out in public and do a little people watching when I’m out of character ideas. Going to settings similar to the story’s location can also yield some useful character details as you observe real world interactions.

Give Your Villains Some Love Too

As difficult as it may be, your villains should be as relatable as your heroes. Just as heroes shouldn’t been all good, villains shouldn’t be all bad. Their past has shaped them as well, though it’s bent them in a different direction.

Tragic, but believable backstories can create sympathy for an antagonist and show them to be more than just a monster. It helps the reader to understand their motivation, even if they don’t agree with their actions.

Weaving it into the Narrative

Now comes the hard part—working the past in without the dreaded data dump. Don’t hate me, but the truth is most of the backstory you’ve built will never be seen in the final edit. Too much dwelling in the past can kill story pacing and bore your readers to death. Most of the history you’ve created is there to give you, the writer, the opportunity to get to know the characters better so you can write them in a more realistic way.

This is the point where I sift through my character files and decide what the reader really needs to know and how I can weave it into the story without breaking the pace. I find the best way for me to accomplish this is to let the characters tell the tale. I work the needed information into dialogue, action tags, and scene descriptions. For tips on how to do this check out my WITS post, Let Your Characters Tell the Story.

Prologues and Flashbacks

One way to work in backstory is a prologue. If used intelligently, they can give insight into the MC’s past, but be careful. Prologues often become the dreaded data dumps we work so hard to keep out of prose. The need for a prologue may also be an indication that you’re starting your story in the wrong place. Keep this in mind and if you must use them, use them wisely.

The same can be said for flashbacks. Just like prologues, they often become data dumps. This will put the brakes on the action and kill your story pacing in a heartbeat. Flashbacks may also indicate that the story needs to start earlier in the life of the MC.

Some Final Thoughts

Like I said before, everyone has a past, including the characters we write. Sit down with your characters, dig into their past, and free the skeletons in their closet. Get to know them. Hear their voices. See their faces. Make them real to you and you’ll be better equipped to make them real to your readers!

How do you develop your characters and work their backstories into your manuscript? Who are some characters you’ve become attached to? Let us know in the comments!

About Eldred

Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing KarmaCatching Karma, and Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking RoomTreble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.

When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking, and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives). His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. He can be found on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website.

Photo credits: Eldred Bird

20 comments on “Digging Up Bones - What's Your Character's Backstory?”

    1. Thanks, Christine. Just FYI, we never become masters in the game. There's always something new to learn!

  1. I tend to wait until I need something before I dive into my character's backstory. Laziness on my part, but if his having siblings isn't going to show up in the story, I don't like to spend time digging it out. I tend to discover things as I go, by asking myself (and the character) WHY he did something, responded/reacted in a certain way, etc as the story unfolds. I work from a GMC standpoint (Goal, Motivation, Conflict) so a lot of these tidbits show up there.

    1. I do a bit of that too, Terry. Being a pantser, nothing is carved in stone and the characters still evolve and change as I write. Once I put fingers to keyboard, they often tell me I got things wrong in the beginning. It's all part of the joys of writing!

  2. I already know the backstory of my villain and how he got that way, but the mere thought of sitting down to have an imaginary conversation make my skin crawl and I want to run out of the room. He isn't even a murderer or physically violent; he's just a slimy shifty slippery person.

    1. Those are my favorite characters to talk to! Their way of thinking is foreign to my own that I find it even more important to get inside their heads and figure out what makes them tick. It can be a little scary, but worth it in the end. It also gives me a safe place to let my evil side run free for a little while without consequences...

  3. Sometimes a mist of a story swirls in my mind and characters glom on to it as the ideas solidify.

    Othertimes a character or two sort of show up waiting for me to get my act together. This has happened in sequels.

    Of the characters in books that I've already published, I'd say that Frankie, the obnoxious pet fish in the Adventures of Charlie Chameleon stories, is a favorite. He is definitely flawed but deep down he means well.

  4. Even though we know it, sometimes it helps for someone to point it out. Perfect example. Thank you for sharing this information and kick in the pants. 🙂 BTW Now I can't get that Randy Travis song out of my mind. Lol. But at least it will be a reminder while I write of 'what not to forget'. 🙂

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