Writing Exceptional Characters Part One Backstory
Write Better Now Podcast
Hey, thanks for listening to Write Better Now.
In between starting a new business, a new true-crime podcast, and local news blog, and editing other people’s stories, I’ve actually started my own new book that I’m pretty excited about, but when I was rereading my first chapter, I realized that so far I’d been failing terribly when it came to making my main character.
I-the -writer loved her, but the me that’s an editor? Yeah. I knew we had some work to do.
Thankfully there is a lot of good ideas and advice out there about how to make a character that’s a rock star, a character that people remember and want to hang out with for 50,000 to 100,000 words.
And my character’s big issue?
She had no past. I was so focused on the adventures she was about to have that I didn’t mention that she’d ever existed beyond that first paragraph of the story.
Backstory is a tricky thing because we don’t want it to weigh down the forward motion of the present narrative, right? But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t sprinkle it in and give readers (and ourselves) an understanding of how the character is the way they are now in the book.
The best kind of backstory is one that allows readers to worry or care about them. Think about Harry Potter. He’s abused, unloved, neglected, but still pretty kind. A good majority of the horrors that have happened to him at the hands of his relative happened before the main thrust of the story.
It doesn’t need to be that drastic or dramatic. You do not have to put your characters in cupboards.
In my story’s first pages, the dad and daughter are about to head to Iceland for her senior year because he allegedly has a new job there. The character wants to be a cook. She has a boyfriend. It’s her senior year. That’s all quickly established in my revision as she’s packing their car and sees something nefarious lurking at the edge of the woods. Then her dad gives a little bit of a kicker when he says to her, “You’ve never liked change.”
It hints at the backstory. Obviously there has been a time before where something changed and it didn’t go well.
It also hints at the theme: Change happens. Nothing is forever.
And it also hints at her big lie that she believes about the world: Change is bad.
All those things happen in one tiny bit of dialogue, but also, that one tiny bit of dialogue lets us know that the characters have a shared past. Pretty cool, right?
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