What makes a character who he or she is, is the backstory. Every story is only a portion of a character’s life, we can never tell the whole story. But writers still have to know what happened before the story starts.
The past has shaped the present in countless ways. World history explains trade patterns and significant man-made structures. The Eiffel tower, for example, is the result of an international competition. The Great Wall of China has a story behind it, as well as the Berlin Wall. Hong Kong was leased by the United Kingdom for almost 100 years and may explain why the huge city is significantly different than the rest of China.
For individuals, the combined effect of nature and nurture results in unique personalities. The environment greatly influences habits and preferences of a person or character. I grew up in a small town near the mountains. As a result, I don’t like big cities or flat surroundings. The mountains make me feel safe, and limited buildings give me the feeling of easy breathing.
Since the past shapes individuals and countries, it makes sense to create a backstory that supports the status of a character for the story. In writing however, the process may be done a little backwards. Identifying the needed characteristics of a character may come first. Often the story will dictate the necessary qualities of the character whether it is the essence of the plot, or simply to create conflict and intensify the story.
Perhaps a side character needs to be less than civilized in order to up the conflict with a sophisticated main character. With the needed attributes identified, you can now ask what would cause the character to be so uncivilized. Being raised by wolves is an easy solution that would contribute to the excellent conflict. One of my favorite exercises is identifying what would cause the villain to be the way he or she has become. What would drive someone to become evil?
The villain may be the character that needs a backstory the most. We have to be able to relate to the character. How else can we do that without a plausible explanation for the current awfulness?
Creating the Backstory
With hundreds of options. how do you begin? To create a rich background that will add depth to the story, utilize aspects of the story in the backstory. Find what would add contrast and conflict, what would complicate the story? Perhaps the character raised by wolves falls in love with the sophisticated character who lost a loved one to a ravenous wolf.
Sometimes the reader never has to know the backstory. A tragic backstory may not have to be revealed to the reader, but the character’s depressing outlook can still make sense. As long as the writer knows what the reasons are behind the behaviors, it will come across as believable to the reader. So, while some backstory details will be important to the story, others don’t have to be. The sophisticated character may hate wolves or be terrified of them, but the reader doesn’t have to know why if the mannerisms are consistent and believable.
After the Backstory
With another complete story, it’s sometimes hard to not want to share everything. Some details of the backstory are important to reveal, but most aren’t. The important part is the actual story. If the knowledge of a detail doesn’t change the plot, it doesn’t need to be shared. In romances, the entire dating history of a character isn’t shared, only the relevant parts. The first date and the prom date aren’t important when a character is recovering from an abusive marriage.
So, while everything plays a part in shaping the character and making them who they are, learn to identify only the relevant details. Just enough backstory clues makes the story complete. But too many details results in a boring muck pile the reader has to wade through to find the actual story.
So develop a backstory just enough to make you excited to write the real story. Then, if you love it enough afterwards, maybe you can make the backstory a real, complete story on its own. That’s the best part about creating a backstory, it opens opportunities for other stories in addition to adding depth to the current one.