Getting to Know Your People’s Histories: Using Backstory to Inform Character Development

In my last post, I wrote about the importance—necessity, even—of knowing your people… that is, your characters (for fiction and memoir) and your Ideal Reader, and yourself, (for non-fiction how-to self-help books).

Backstories

After we delve into who our characters and Ideal Readers are, we can get to know them even more deeply through their backstories—or histories. These histories are what shaped their beliefs and identities. (This is true also for those wanting to write the self-help or how-to non-fiction book and will apply to you, personally, as well because your personal story—the life events that brought you to write your book in the first place—will likely be woven throughout your book.) Through these beliefs and identities shaped from our characters’ backstories come their desires.

When we understand, on a deep level, our people’s heart-felt desires, we can develop compassion for those desires, and embrace the motivations behind them and the behaviors that prevent our people from attaining them. This will not only inform our story trajectories in fiction, it will also inform a deeper understanding of ourselves in memoir and the true pain points of our clients and potential customers and readers in non-fiction books.

Another facet of a character’s backstory we want to think about is setting. Setting is both temporal and spatial.

Temporal Setting

The temporal setting of a book or story is the era in which it takes place. The temporal setting of your characters’ backstories is important because it will inform much about your characters’ beliefs, social mores, and behaviors. Think about a teenage girl born in the 1950s and one born in the 2000s. They will be two very different people simply because of the time in which they were born. Now, place one of those girls in the U.S. and one in the UK or Africa or Asia during each of those times periods. You’ll have five distinctly different people.

When we can get clear on the temporal setting of our characters’ backstories, we can start to think more deeply about the WHYs behind their desires, motivations, and behaviors, and we can not only have a deeper understanding of them as people, but we can also represent them with more integrity and compassion on the page.

Spatial Setting

Spatial setting includes spaces and locations that figured into the shaping of the character’s identity because spaces shape who we are. Think about your own significant spaces and locations: your childhood home, your bedroom, your family’s kitchen, your school, your backyard, your school bus, your family’s car(s)… Now, think about how those spaces shaped your identity, what you care about, what you want, and what you don’t want. The same is true of our characters.

A young man raised on a farm will come to his college experience with a far different set of beliefs and desires than one raised in Manhattan. Think about how each of these characters might show up to an accounting class or a writing class and what their expectations, intentions, and fears might be. When we put together our characters’ pasts with their present-day fears, we’re writing from a place that will generate stories of universal appeal because we can get to the emotional experience of life. And no matter where we were raised or when, we all experience emotions the same. This is the bridge between us and our readers.

Characters’ backstories may not show up in the stories we write about them, but knowing and understanding them will inform us and influence the stories we write about them.

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Write 2-3 pages for one of your characters, your Ideal Reader, or yourself giving deep thought to their backstories and settings, and leave a comment below. I’d love to hear about what you discover.

Sending you mad writing mojo…

Happy writing!

Best,

Johnnie
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