Writing back story

Everyone loves a good character. The converse is also true. Weak, two-dimensional characters kill a story because what hooks most of us is our interest in the personalities depicted by the writer. After all, we’re writing, usually, about conflict between people, and most stories end by showing how someone changed from the start of the tale. Thus readers are looking for people who feel real, with whom we can identify or about whom we can feel superior, especially in the case of comedy.

I’m a believer that layering adds interest. Thinking of Alfred Hitchcock’s thoughts on suspense is one concept I return to all the time—a conversation about baseball is pretty mundane unless the audience knows that there’s a bomb under the table. I find this lesson extrapolates well to character development. Seeing a doctor at work in the ER is one thing; knowing that doctor intentionally killed a patient the night before brings another level to who we’re reading about, and knowing the murder happened because the victim reminded the doctor of someone else, yet another layer of interest to keep us reading.

To get at these layers, I start off with simple character sketches, putting down physical characteristics, mostly because if I can’t see their face as I’m writing a scene, I can’t write them. I hate it when characters sound like each other, so I think about things like a tendency to speak quickly, a problem remembering names, an inability to remember faces, things that will likely affect how they speak. After physical aspects I give them little family trees: parents’ names, what kind of house they grew up in, anything about their childhood that comes to mind. Did their dog get hit by a car? Did their hamster get loose and die inside the kitchen wall and stink for a month? Were they bullied?

Like I do for plot lines, I draw relationship diagrams between the main characters of my story, because none of us has two friends about whom we feel the same. Two friends went through some awful bonding experience together that they keep secret and that alienates them from everyone else. Maybe the leads meet each other halfway through the book, but I want to know what there is to know ahead of time, in the same way that I’ve stored up the history I have with my real life friends. The ones who let me sleep on their couch when my power went out one January evening, I had that memory in my deep storage when they called me and asked me to come to the hospital when they had their first baby. You know I broke speeding laws to get there as fast as possible.

Characters have to be real people, but at the same time, I try to make sure they’re amalgamated from several people I’ve known and drawn from fictional spaces.  I hate when they’re too close to real life people, because eventually someone will ask, “Is that me,” and I’ve already written a memoir, so I don’t want to keep going there.

Because I need to get to know my characters, I write some of their back story in scene form. No, this stuff isn’t going to make it into an actual story, but the act of writing their thoughts, responses, and dialogue embeds them into my mind better, like writing notes from a class will help a student remember the lesson. What I’ve never written is an epilogue, but I suppose that’s a thought for another day. Perhaps it’s safe to say that while I am interested in what leads characters into conflict and resolution, once the story is over, it’s over.

The adage to “show, not tell,” is fine for the parts that readers will see, and I’m all for that. But back story needs to be developed at some point for the “showing” to ring true. So telling, when it comes to putting the back story together, is A-OK, especially as it helps focus the story on the “showing” parts.  Sometimes, if the back story is powerful enough, I’ll rewrite it as a reveal in the story, and twisting the telling into a show of action. Actually, story in which I did that will be posted here in the next couple of days.

I’d love to hear from others about how they prepare back story. Do you draw out hobbies that have come and gone, put in triumphs, or only stressors and negative experiences that have made the character who they are at the start of the story? Let’s discuss.

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Categories: ev's writing

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