Creating a Character’s Backstory Part 2 by Rebecca Talley

Understanding a character’s backstory will have a dramatic impact on your novel. If you don’t understand, or take the time to investigate, your character’s backstory, your story will suffer and your characters will feel more like cardboard stereotypes than living, breathing people.

What are some ways to create the backstory?

Narrative. You can write out the major events in the character’s life in the form of a narrative. You can add different details, bits of conversation, and a description of the events that have shaped your character. Keep your narrative to 1-3 pages—more for the major characters and less for the minor ones.

Interview. You can conduct an interview with your character. Ask whatever question pops into your mind and then write down the answer. Use each answer as a springboard for the next question. You may be surprised at some of your character’s answers.

List. You can list the events chronologically with a short description of how each event affected your character. Lists are easy to scan for the details you need to form your character’s backstory.

Web. You can write your character’s name in the middle of the paper and then write events around the name. You can then connect feelings, descriptions, and/or reactions to those events so that you eventually end up with a document that resembles a spider web.

Visual. Cut out magazine photos to represent events and then write a description of how this affected your character. Use active words to describe your character’s reactions.

The purpose of creating a backstory is to help you understand what motivates your character. You want your character to react realistically to your plot events and you want readers to believe that your character acts realistically within the story.

If your character is presented with the news that her father has died how will she react? Will she breakdown into tears? Shrug? Be happy? Sink into depression? Feel guilty? It all depends on the backstory you’ve created for her. While you won’t include all the details of the character’s backstory, you will need to pepper your story with some of the details so the reader believes the reactions to the events in the plot.

It’s all about the suspension of disbelief. The more you understand your character and portray her realistically on the page, the more your readers will immerse themselves in your story.

Rebecca Talley grew up in Santa Barbara, CA. She now lives in rural CO on a small ranch with a dog, a spoiled horse, too many cats, and a herd of goats. She and her husband, Del, are the proud parents of ten multi-talented and wildly-creative children. Rebecca is the author of a children's picture book "Grasshopper Pie" (WindRiver 2003), three novels, "Heaven Scent" (CFI 2008), "Altared Plans" (CFI 2009), and "The Upside of Down" (CFI 2011), and numerous magazine stories and articles. You can visit her blog at www.rebeccatalleywrites.blogspot.com.


Donna K. Weaver said...

This is good stuff. I've been getting ready to do some backstory on character, so this is handy.

Steve Westover said...

Excellent posts, Rebecca!