by Ellen Buikema
As a writer, you have the power to create new worlds filled with characters, places, and plots.
To make sure your readers emotionally invest in the characters you create, you need to develop interesting ones so your readers will connect with them on a personal level.
Is it vital to know everything about your characters before you write? Maybe not. It’s important to know some background, strengths, flaws, and the personalities of your main characters before you get started but remember that these fictional people will evolve as you create their stories.
The journey helps make us who we are.
The background is a blending of personal history, life experiences, and situations that shape who people are in the present. Knowing a character's background helps readers understand why characters do what they do.
“People in a family act to control the range of one another’s behavior.” - Gregory Bateson, anthropologist and systems theorist
Depending on the relationships with their closest caregivers, people are more relatable, shy, or rowdy. Relationships with siblings, parents, and extended family influence characters’ values and how they relate to others.
How they are raised impacts, but does not limit, their worldview.
Families are complicated, and they may be made up of various members, a point worth exploring in your writing. Who are your protagonist’s closest relatives? Are these people present? Absent? How does your character feel about them? Answers to these questions can uncover essential details about your protagonist.
What is the birth order of your protagonist? The baby of the family will have different perspectives than a firstborn. Children who grow up in a single-parent household may have a different viewpoint than someone who grows up in a two-parent household.
Is the family a tight-knit family? Or rarely has contact with their relations? This can affect your character’s motivations and decisions.
A tip for those writing historical fiction:
In medieval Europe, birth order for upper-class males, was significant. The eldest inherited the father’s title, the parents sent the second son to the church, and the third went to the military. Birth order back then had vast implications for sons’ futures. All paths led to possible positions of power, but very different types.
To develop realistic families, consider how one person’s decisions affect the others. What if your protagonist leaves home to save themself but leaves siblings to deal with the aftermath? Like physics, does one reaction produce an equal and opposite reaction? The joy of freedom to be gone versus anguish at being left behind? Or there may be emotional scarring on both sides. Consider the inter-relationships of family members as you weave your story.
Financial situations can influence attitudes as well as opportunities. Funding may create or remove obstacles in their growth path.
Say, for example, that your protagonist leads a life of privilege and faces the loss of everything. Will there be enough emotional “cushion” for her to bounce back on her feet? Will she be at a disadvantage, not streetwise enough to cope?
Perhaps your main character is flat broke, and then wins the lottery, or inherits a fortune. How will that change his future? Will he be bamboozled by those who would take advantage? How might his personality be affected?
A character's values, worldview, and experiences are all influenced by their cultural background. Cultural identity affects how they interact with others within and outside their primary sphere of influence and how they maneuver within their environment.
The novel that came to my mind regarding family and culture is Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.
In The Godfather loyalty to La Famiglia is more important than anything else, and family ties are close.
“A man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man.” Mario Puzo, The Godfather.
Friends, a close second.
“Friendship is everything. Friendship is more than talent. It is more than the government. It is almost the equal of family.” Mario Puzo, The Godfather.
Protection from the outer-world, outside these characters’ culture, is provided by La Famiglia.
“I don't trust society to protect us. I have no intention of placing my fate in the hands of men whose only qualification is that they managed to con a block of people to vote for them.” Mario Puzo, The Godfather.
What our characters choose to do for a living, and the education that got them there shine a light on a character's interests, skills, and strengths. A character's schooling and profession influence their socioeconomic status, relationships, and lifestyle. What school did they attend? Was it progressive? Are they happy in their current job?
Traumatic experiences significantly impact a character's behavior and personality. Trauma influences the way a character handles relationships, deals with fears, beliefs, and can drive their decisions.
Understanding these five key elements of a character's background lets you create a multidimensional, relatable character.
Not all characters need a detailed backstory, but having a basic understanding of their background can help you develop an engaging, realistic character.
What do you think is the most important thing to understand about your character’s background? Of the stories you’ve read, which ones have exceptionally relatable characters? Did you have a good understanding of those characters’ background information?
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Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents, and The Adventures of Charlie Chameleon chapter book series with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works in Progress are The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and The Crystal Key, MG Magical Realism/ Sci-Fi, a glaze of time travel.
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