My experience with developing rich, complex backgrounds is due in large part to my brother’s influence. Frank always insisted on developing how your character got to the start of the game. Why are they a warrior or a mage? Who taught them? What else did they learn? Even with my first character, after the toddler phase, he peppered me with questions and helped lead me through creating a backstory. I didn’t realize that I was learning a pivotal skill for a writer, but as I started pursuing fictional writing the foundational skills he taught me became the center of my writing process.
For one game, instead of guiding the players through a series of questions, Frank started the game at the pivotal moment that changed the characters’ lives. He ran each player through their own backstory letting them choose how it played out. One of the player’s reaction to the experience changed how I viewed backstory.
Don is the kind of guy you can’t help but love, like a big dog, all wagging tails and happy smile. He is one of the sweetest people I know but not the sharpest. In the game, Don decided he wanted to be a paladin, a religious warrior, of the god of justice. Frank started the game when Don’s character was 8 years old.
The boy witnessed a mugging and with his strong ideas of right and wrong decided to intervene. He stood up to two adult brigands, but they quickly turned their attention to him. The boy ended up getting several bruises for his intervention, and things would have been worse if a member of the city guard hadn’t stopped the beating. The guardsman took him to the local church where a cleric, a priest with the ability to perform divine miracles, magically healed the boy. Once the boy was well, the two men heard his valorous tale. Moved by the boy’s bravery, the cleric decided to teach him the tenets of the god of justice and the guardsman began his martial training so the boy would be able to defend himself and others.
At the end of the game Don stared at Frank and laughed. “I can’t believe it, I wanted to be a paladin of this faith, and it all lined up just like that. What are the chances?” Frank smiled knowingly. He had created the scenario to lead Don’s character to his desired goal, just like any good writer should.
Whenever I think of this story the “just like that” always sticks with me. Sometimes making backstory can be challenging (like beating your head against a wall until your mentally huddled in a ball, crying) but to the audience, it should seem just as effortless as it did to Don. Your character whoever or whatever they are at the beginning should seem to have arrived there “just like that” to anyone who knows their backstory.
Inciting Incident of Backstory
Although several instances can affect who your character is, people are a sum of their life experiences after all, there are a handful of events that really distill the key development of a character. Often you can simplify this to one moment that started them on the path, like the toppling of a first domino, and everything else falls because of that incident. To those who have studied writing this moment sounds like the inciting incident of a novel’s plot. In some ways, it is the same but it is the inciting incident of a character’s background not the plot of the story. The two might be the same for a main character, but every character will have an incident that changes who they are and how they act.
Our lives aren’t solely based on one moment, but one moment can forever alter our life.
Even when I develop a character from a different starting point, either from a goal or personality, I include a single pivotal moment. In the last post, for instance, the witch used her magic and caused irreparable harm to someone landing her in juvie. I believe a single moment embodying how a character became who they are is critical for creating focused, believable characters.
All of your characters, big role or small, have something that shaped them into the character you need them to be. You won’t always have every part of who they are worked out, especially for characters with smaller roles, but you will have the part of them you need for the story. As a writer, you need to ask yourself what was the pivotal instance that put them on the track to get them to be who they are in your story. (Notice I said who and not where. The where is the easy question the who requires a bit more work.)
Although this single moment isn’t all that will shape the character, it is an instance you can build off, helping gain traction for the rest of the character’s development. Also by defining this key moment, you are starting to focus on what is important for that character in terms of your story, not just an event that happened to them. These two elements are probably the hardest to realize and the most important, what is important about this character in terms of the story and where do you go from an initial concept to create a vivid, interesting person.
Starting from Backstory
Developing a backstory and history for characters is one of the things I absolutely love about roleplaying and writing. My curiosity gets to run rampant as I embrace questioning all the aspects of the character. When backstory is the starting point for a character’s development, it is also one of the few times you get to ask the “what if” question about a character instead of plot.
I try to focus on one pivotal event, one “what if”, that changed the character’s life, like Don’s character witnessing the mugging. This “what if” is the inciting incident of backstory I discussed above.
After I have determined the “what if” moment I start to consider the character’s personality, who would they have been before the moment or who did they have to be to get them to the inciting incident. Finally, if it hasn’t already fallen out from the backstory and personality I start thinking about the goal of the character.
What if a teenager with a brilliant talent lost the ability to do whatever they have built their identity around because they are injured in an accident.
What kind of prodigy? Dance or athlete… there are several books regarding overcoming a handicap that affects mobility. I think I want to focus on something that affects identity more than mobility, like losing the use of a non-dominant hand for someone who does something with their hands.
What about a musician? Maybe a pianist or violinist. These are kind of cliché. I like the idea of the instrument being a constant companion. Something the character carries around with her all the time. So maybe something smaller and something a little less common than a flute or clarinet. Let’s go with an oboe.
She was a prodigy and has been working non-stop to get into an elite musical training program. Competing regularly. Practicing endlessly. Then something happens that destroys her hand.
So, the person would have been driven and focused to live this life. Highly competitive and loved music.
The backstory nugget: A prodigy oboist has focused her entire life on getting into an elite music program. Her life was filled with competitions and constant practice until an accident ruins her hand. She must learn to live and to love music all over again.
I have the critical moment of her backstory, what she does, and a bit of her personality. Step 1- check
The next post will deal with the final base concept starting point, personality.