Posts Tagged ‘backstory’

Producing a Novel – Part 4

Character Sketches and Backstory

By: Donna Schlachter

Now that you have the foundation for your book that we covered in Parts 1, 2, and 3, you can begin the hard non-writing part of your book: deciding who your characters will be, and what their stories are.

Every Character has a Story

Yes, every single character in your book has their own story. That’s because, just like real people, everything that happened to your characters in the past affects who and what they are today or whenever your story is set.

The easy thing to do at this point is ignore this advice and move directly to the writing part of the story—but be advised: you’ll have to do this step at some point. Doing it now will save you time and heartache later on.

I made the mistake of skipping this step in my first full-length mystery novel, and I ended up three chapters from the end not knowing whodunit or why. I hadn’t written in any clues or red herrings, either, which meant I had to stop, figure out the criminal and their motivation, then go back and point my amateur sleuth in several wrong directions before revealing the real crook.

Not fun.
As I said, I suggest you do this now.

Where do you start?

Start with your main character. Ask a few questions, and make a note of the answers somewhere. I will discuss modes of information storage in another section, but how you keep the data is more about you and your preferences.

Some authors refer to this as their Bible—because it holds the truth about their story. I’ve found that deciding on a key element—such as the color of the character’s eyes or hair—is easier if I have a photo or image. You can download and print these pictures in color and keep them in a binder, a folder, or on your computer for quick reference and refreshing your memory.

But for those non-physical details, such as birthplace, schooling, first love, car preference, vacations, et cetera, you’ll want to write or type those somewhere. Again, images are good.

And while few of these details will make it into your story, they might aid in you deciding how the character would react in a given situation. For example, if you knew your character grew up in the Depression, the oldest of seven children, and their father died so your character had to drop out of school to work so the rest of the kids could eat, that might change your decision about whether your character would spend a year-end bonus or bank it.

What should you ask your characters?

You can find lists of interview questions for characters on various websites, which I will include below under Resources, but the primary questions to ask your character are:

Every Character has a Story
  • Name
  • Date and place of birth
  • Birth order
  • Siblings
  • Parent’s occupations
  • Parent’s ages at time of character’s birth
  • Parents’ education
  • First job
  • Pet preference
  • First memory
  • Did they live with grandparents?
  • Struggles in school, favorite subjects
  • Reason for being where they are now
  • Past wounds, including lost loves, marriages, relationships, etc.

Why is a character sketch important?

You might wonder how any of this is important to your story today. Let’s take parents’ education, for example. If the father is a college graduate and the mother is a high school dropout, depending on which parent your character was closer to could affect their attitude toward the importance of education. If they were closer to their mother, they might think education isn’t important since it wasn’t important to Mom. But what if Mom dropped out because she was pregnant, and has always wanted to return but there was never enough time or money? What if Mom was harassed at school by students, so she quit, then got her GED years later? That might change the character’s attitude.

The idea behind knowing who your character is will create a three-dimensional character. Don’t make your main character too much like you, because then this will become your story. Change up some details. If you decide your character dropped out of school because she was pregnant, talk to some women who made that choice. Ask them what their thoughts were at the time. Were they hoping for a happily-ever-after shotgun wedding? Or did they see their hopes and dreams sucked down the drain? Were they trying to escape a bad family situation, only to find themselves married to a man they hardly knew? Or was it the best thing they ever did? All of these will change your character’s responses to various situations.

Don’t stop at your main character.

Then do the same with your secondary character and your antagonist/villain. You want to know these three characters as well as you know your own family. Make certain to give each of them a different past. Be sure that your secondary character’s strength is opposite to your main character’s, and that their wounds are bound to bring them into conflict. And don’t neglect your antagonist/villain’s good point—everybody has at least one. Find something that your main and secondary characters can empathize with.

For any other characters, you don’t need to know much more about them than their name, occupation, one good quality, and one flaw, then play on those good qualities and flaws, using the flaws to create conflict and tension in your story.

Backstory is never dumped into the story.

As to backstory, that’s the compilation of all of this information about your primary characters. It’s important for you to know, and it’s important for your reader to know so they understand why a character says or does what they do. However, backstory is never to be dumped into a story like a biography. The best way is to reveal their backstory through internal dialogue.

Here’s an example: Your main character was bullied as a child in school. Now she’s dating a teacher who believes shouting is the way to get his point across.

Kevin slapped the table. “You need to listen to me on this!”
Sally sighed, stood, and walked away. For the final time.
Men, they’re all the same. On the playground. Or on the school board.

Do you see how we know something happened in her past without her having to say anything about the specific incident?

When you combine character sketches with backstory, now you have the building blocks to writing a powerful, multi-layered story that draws readers in.

100+ Questions to Help You Interview Your Character
The Write Practice – 37 Questions to Ask Your Character
Making the Most of Character Interviews
The Writing – Get to Know Your Characters

Did you miss any installments of Producing a Novel?
Generating—and Testing—Ideas for Fiction and Non-Fiction Books – Part 1
Genre and Markets – Part 2
Building Believable Characters – Part 3
Character Sketches and Backstory – Part 4
Hooking Your Readers – Part 5
Character and Story Arc – Part 6
Outlining Your Book – Part 7
Overcoming the Muddle Middle – Part 8
Racing to the Finish – Part 9
Writing a Series – Part 10
Self-Editing – Part 11
Cover Design and Self-Publishing – Part 12

Donna Schlachter

Donna Schlachter writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 30 times in novellas, full-length novels, and non-fiction books. She is a member of ACFW, Writers on the Rock, Sisters in Crime, Pikes Peak Writers, and CAN; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; and judges in writing contests.
Find her on: FacebookTwitterAmazonSmashwordsEtsy

Backstory Reverb

By: Deb McLeod

Recently the issue of backstory came up again with a client who is writing a YA in the aftermath of a pandemic. The horror is over and the story is about how they will live from here forward. About the society they will create and how they might do it differently this time. The writer, working on her first draft, was feeling the pressure of writing backstory and wanted to talk about whether it had a place in the novel or not. 

As I’ve said here before, there are writers who insist no backstory is the right amount. But I disagree. I think it depends upon the story, of course. But there’s more to that feeling of needing backstory that deserves to be looked at as part of the writing process. 

Thinking about my client’s story I wonder how backstory can not play a role in the front story. What happened during the pandemic to each of her characters is relevant to how they respond to the changed world. The complete loss of any kind of control in the face of a global disease, an invisible foe, has to change the people that lived it and the society they will create the next time. It will also reverberate for generations to come.

For example, I think about whether or not my mom living through the depression had an effect on me. Here’s a story that illustrates exactly what I’m talking about. During the depression, my mom was poor. She lived with her immigrant grandparents because her mother died at twenty-four and in those days men didn’t raise children, especially widowers who didn’t marry someone else right away. So my mother and my aunt moved in with their grandparents. 

My great-grandfather was injured at work in 1930. In those days, sans any kind of compensation, he was simply out of work. My great-grandmother cleaned the house of the factory owner and they had to accept subsistence from the government. They lost their house. The girls wore heavy, black, government shoes that were delivered by a big truck that stopped in front of their house to bring food and supplies. When the truck came my mother and her sister would hide. To be supported that way was shameful. 

Certainly in any story I would tell about my mother, that time in her life would reverberate, always. The backstory would have an effect on the front story. Formative experiences always do. 

But I have wondered what strings from my mother’s experience of living poor are threaded through my life and into my daughter’s. During my conversations with my writer-friend I thought about what my mom’s life event meant to the current story. 

One conclusion I came to was that both me and my daughter learned my mother’s extraordinary ability to “make do” which I believe is a direct result of the depression years she lived through. The women in our family make do to a fault. And I’m not just talking about groceries. It’s been more along the lines of accepting and getting along without, rather than fighting to get what we deserve. Does that make sense? 

And that bleeds over into other areas besides money or jobs. It’s an attitude I’ve been fighting since I realized how unhealthy that is and exactly what it says to the universe about getting my needs met. It’s sort of like neglect on a spiritual level. I believe I can trace it back to my mom’s experience with poverty and I can see it in my daughter, too. 

So how much of that backstory would make it into a novel about my story or my daughter’s story? Perhaps none. But isn’t the writer better informed if they’ve taken the time to explore those issues in their character’s lives and to write about how the backstory still reverberates? 

Perhaps the definitive answer for my friend’s novel is to write the backstory in the first draft exploration. Spend time wallowing in the Why of it all so she knows what influences her characters and their story. Perhaps she should look for the threads that still live in all of their lives, how the backstory changed the front story and what it says about the future stories. The individual reactions to that pandemic will reflect in each person differently, in each family differently and it will have a societal ‘flavor’ as well. Perhaps even different in different parts of the country. 

Here’s an illustration. One day during a dinner when both my mother and my mother-in-law were present, the subject of the depression came up. My mother-in-law, raised in Cape Cod in a wealthy family (think coming out balls and Sarah Lawrence college), lamented over the loss of their summer home on the beach during the depression. My mother’s lips pressed to white and she said nothing about the government shoes. Still steeped in shame. 

So thematically, I think all stories deserve a time playing with backstory. Then even if you don’t use the actual scenes you write in backstory, or use only some of it, you understand your characters and their world better and you might find themes that will serve as the bones that holds your story together.

Deb McLeod is an author and creative writing coach. She has been coaching writers for over ten years, and worked with fiction, memoir and creative nonfiction writers. She has also worked with poets and screen writers.