Author Toolbox: Character Creation- Starting from Backstory

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.

Three miniatures for role-playing gameDon 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.

Two children walking down a dirt road.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.

Example:

Oboe with sheet musicWhat 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

Moving Forward

The next post will deal with the final base concept starting point, personality.


Photo Credits

Main Image: Reaching hand by Lalesh Aldarwish
RPG Battle by E.M.A. Timar
Two Children Walking by Annie Sprat
Thanks for the Music by Hernán Piñera

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By | 2017-05-18T11:05:26+00:00 May 15th, 2017|Writing|38 Comments

About the Author:

Writer, Software Engineer, modern-day Renaissance woman and eternal student

38 Comments

  1. Cheryl Sterling May 15, 2017 at 8:57 pm - Reply

    This is an interesting concept. As a writer, we’re told to start the story with an inciting incident. Also, to sprinkle the backstory throughout the story and don’t info dump. I’ve never thought about thinking of the inciting incident of the character as a person. We all have them, why not our characters?
    Thank for looking at character development from a different angle.

    • Erika Timar May 17, 2017 at 12:04 am - Reply

      I didn’t actually consider it an inciting incident until this post. I have always built at least one pivotal moment into every character’s backstory that shaped them to who they are and when I started describing it I realized it has the attributes of the inciting incident of plot.
      Once you get to honing the character concept as it relates to your story, that is where you really start to find which parts of your character’s backstory should make it into the story and which are just for you to know so you can make them react in a believable way.

  2. M. C. Frye May 15, 2017 at 9:47 pm - Reply

    I love this topic and I’m going to reread it a couple times tonight. I have two characters in my WIP who are similar in many ways, but one had a pivotal “there but for the Grace of God, go I” incident, and the other character didn’t. The last week or so, I’ve been working out how that incident, or the lack of it, plays out in both their lives.

    • Erika Timar May 16, 2017 at 11:58 pm - Reply

      Wow, that is a perfect example of the single pivotal moment in a character’s backstory changing who they are. I would love to hear more about how things develop.

  3. Lyndsey May 16, 2017 at 4:31 am - Reply

    This is such a good idea, I love how you learnt it too, roleplaying games can be such great inspiration for writing. I’m going to go back and do this for a few of my secondary characters and flesh them out a little more now, thanks for the tip!

    • Erika Timar May 16, 2017 at 11:57 pm - Reply

      It is amazing how much you can learn from games. I spent hours researching topics I never would have if I hadn’t played, not to mention learning a slew of GRE words. I also learned myself by having the freedom to pretend to be someone else. I am truly lucky to have the brothers I do. Not every teenage boy would tolerate their decade younger sister playing with them.

  4. Ronel Janse van Vuuren May 16, 2017 at 5:59 am - Reply

    Great tips! I love exploring the backstory of a character long before I start writing the novel – it makes it easier to figure out how said character would react in a situation.

    • Erika Timar May 16, 2017 at 11:53 pm - Reply

      Knowing how your character will react is the cornerstone of roleplaying games. Since you don’t control the situation you have to have a solid foundation formed through backstory to be able to take whatever the GM (gamemaster) throws at you. I think that might be why I am so passionate creating backstory.

  5. Dianna Gunn May 16, 2017 at 9:57 am - Reply

    Excellent tips! Exploring backstory BEFORE you start writing is so important – and not just for your characters. I spend many, many hours on worldbuilding before I even think about starting a draft.

    • Erika Timar May 16, 2017 at 11:52 pm - Reply

      That is definitely my method of writing as well. I am amazed by pantsers. I want to know too much before I put pen to page (or fingers to keys) to pants something. When I try I end up staring at the blankness and worldbuilding in my head anyway.

  6. Victoria Marie Lees May 16, 2017 at 10:28 am - Reply

    I agree with everyone. You have excellent tips here. Another thought you want to ask is “Why does the problem/struggle, internal or external, matter to the protagonist?” Backstory should give you the reason. Perhaps your character identifies with music. Music is who she is and without it, she may feel her life is over. Then the reader follows her struggle to cope and knows how important it is to her.

    • Erika Timar May 16, 2017 at 11:44 pm - Reply

      Asking why it matters is one of the core aspects when I get to honing a character concept (which I will cover in a later post). It is vital to know why the struggle you are showing is important to the character so you can connect with your readers.

  7. Anna May 16, 2017 at 10:53 am - Reply

    I do something similar. I write mysteries and when someone lands up dead all the suspects have a joined history with the victim. Sooooo I write about what happened way back when that broke them apart or brought them together. Their feelings about each other and how they grew–positive or negative. My son calls it layering, I just call it fun, but these words don’t make it into any scene. What happens when they meet again does. 🙂

    Anna from elements of emaginette

    • Erika Timar May 16, 2017 at 11:50 pm - Reply

      I never considered building group backstory as a starting point. That is really interesting. I will definitely consider it in the future. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Louise May 16, 2017 at 11:10 am - Reply

    Great post 🙂 I love making up interesting backstories for my characters. I even write scenes from their pasts to get a feel of who they are as a character, even if I never intend to use that scene in the finished book. Behind every character there should be something that drives them!

    • Erika Timar May 16, 2017 at 11:49 pm - Reply

      I have several scenes that will never be contained in the novel as well. Recently I learned from a marketing standpoint (which is something I am trying desperately to learn), those scenes can be giveaway content to help build an audience. Let that backstory work pull double duty.

      • Louise May 17, 2017 at 3:01 am - Reply

        That’s such a great idea 🙂 Marketing is something that I need to get my head around too: There’s so much to learn

  9. Marie Gilbert May 17, 2017 at 7:27 am - Reply

    This article was really helpful and interesting. Thank you for sharing

  10. M.L. Keller May 17, 2017 at 10:06 am - Reply

    Some authors struggle with making their character’s backstory felt, rather than heard. Too often they feel the need to flashback and info dump rather than really showing how the character’s story affects their current situation. Great tips!

    • Erika Timar May 18, 2017 at 11:21 am - Reply

      Incorporating backstory is a challenging element to writing. I like to think of it like seasoning a meal. You want to sprinkle it all over to add flavor and make the meal delicious. Some areas may need little more spice than others. But you never want to dump a huge pile in one spot or it will be inedible.

      Knowing which part of the backstory (which spice) to include is also a skill. I ask myself, why is this part of the character’s history relevant to the plot now and not somewhere else. Does it directly relate to how they are reacting to something going on currently? Is something happening that is bringing the memory to the surface? Does it reveal something that will make their actions in the immediate future understandable? If not then it probably doesn’t belong in that spot. If it is important you just need to find where it needs to go. I mean, you wouldn’t put garlic in an apple strudel, but it will go great with the steak you made earlier.

  11. Kristina Stanley May 17, 2017 at 11:51 am - Reply

    Great post. It’s tempting to get lost in the backstory of our characters. For some novels, I’e written a lot of backstory before I wrote a first draft,t and others I’ve written a first draft and then gone back and written backstory when I want to flush out character motivation a little better. Both ways work for me.

    • Erika Timar May 18, 2017 at 11:24 am - Reply

      It is great you have a method that works for you. The fact that there are so many paths to success in writing is one of the things I love most about it.

  12. Vanessa May 17, 2017 at 1:15 pm - Reply

    I love when a back story is is introduced as long as it’s done organically, that can still happen in the first chapter without it being an info dump.

    • Erika Timar May 18, 2017 at 11:25 am - Reply

      Exactly. Backstory gives a reader grounding but you don’t want to let it bog down your story.

  13. Dawn byrne May 17, 2017 at 2:14 pm - Reply

    Backstory comes hard for me. Sometimes I have to start with a situation and cardboard character, and come back to my writing journal to create a backstory. Thanks for this post.

    • Erika Timar May 18, 2017 at 11:28 am - Reply

      Everyone has their own method. The important thing is to keep working and improving. Writing is a constant learning process. In a couple posts, I will be writing about how I flesh out a full backstory, as opposed to just starting from an instance to generate a base concept. Maybe some of the advice there will be able to help.

  14. Raimey Gallant May 17, 2017 at 4:16 pm - Reply

    I like thinking about backstory this way, and it came up in my edit letter. Why is this character the way they are? Why are they on this path? I failed to incorporate these elements of some of my characters’ backstories into my book. I knew the information, I just hadn’t weaved it in, and it’s important information.

    • Erika Timar May 18, 2017 at 11:30 am - Reply

      That is why it is so important to have others read your work. If you have created it and know it sometimes it is easy to convince yourself that you showed it clearly, but a new set of eyes looking at it will help point out what you have missed. Then it is easy to incorporate since you already know the answer.

  15. Caroliena Cabada May 17, 2017 at 4:34 pm - Reply

    Great post! I love using “What if” as a way to jumpstart a story, and “what ifs” can be a great way to develop a character, too. Thanks for sharing!

  16. Mica Kole May 17, 2017 at 4:52 pm - Reply

    This is a solid and very simple rule I’ll need to keep in mind. I get into the habit of just formulating vague backstory and not really thinking of it in terms of powerful inciting incidents. But just like the book itself, the character is a story all their own, and something jump-started them on their path. *attempts to indelibly burn this rule into my mind*

    • Erika Timar May 18, 2017 at 11:36 am - Reply

      I believe every character in a story should have a story of their own even if they are the MC. That doesn’t mean that some characters that get spontaneously generated in the writing aren’t vague to start. If I determine them to be important enough to keep in the story, I then start thinking of their backstory and at least the powerful moment in their lives. It helps gives life to even those small side characters that inevitably join the story.

  17. K. Wolf May 17, 2017 at 7:54 pm - Reply

    Wow, thank you for such a thorough guide to character creation! I especially love how you pepper it with anecdotes, it really drives your points home. 🙂

    • Erika Timar May 18, 2017 at 11:37 am - Reply

      Thanks. I just hope it can help some people with their own writing.

  18. Erika Beebe May 17, 2017 at 8:09 pm - Reply

    I like how compare character development to real life living. Great post Erika 🙂

  19. Erika Timar May 18, 2017 at 11:39 am - Reply

    Thanks Erika. 🙂 I don’t see a better way to make “real” characters. If they live and breathe for you as the writer, they can for your reader.

  20. JM Sullivan May 18, 2017 at 10:35 pm - Reply

    I love this! Great information on backstory and points I’d never really considered. Such a wonderful way to approach backstory and I absolutely LOVED this: “Our lives aren’t solely based on one moment, but one moment can forever alter our life.” Powerful. Very powerful!

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