I’ve discovered recently that the stuff that happens to a character before the start of the story is critically important, even if the reader never hears about any of it.
That’s right. You don’t need a flashback every other page (or worse, awkwardly staged dialogue intended to give the readers information) to make use of backstory. Backstory makes a character who he is when the story starts.
Think about yourself. Right now, if someone were to make a movie of your life, starting today, there would be some items of backstory they’d need to tell the audience. Who you are, how you got here, significant relationships, anything traumatic that is currently influencing you.
But there are an awful lot of things they wouldn’t feel the need to include. Not every shot from your mom’s photo album would need to be shown. Not every minute of home video would make the cut into the montage. But without those boring, unnecessary things, you wouldn’t be the same you. So they’re important, just not shown.
With that in mind, here are three ways to come up with interesting backstories for your characters.
Stage Play Format: At the beginning of a script for a play, there is a brief description of all the important stage pieces that need to be in place when the curtain rises. (At left is a small park bench with a trash can nearby, blah, blah, blah.)
Do that. But don’t describe a physical location. Describe the positions of your character’s emotional/psychological/social furniture and props when the curtain rises. By that I mean, at the start of your story, what is your protagonist afraid of? Who does he prefer to spend time with? What subjects should you really not bring up around him unless you want to get punched?
Then ask, “Why?”
There’s your backstory. Write it down. Set the scene. Then yell, “Action!”
Storytime: Make a list of a dozen or so possible events to put into your character’s life before the start of the story. They don’t have to be dramatic in the sense of there-was-a-bomb-in-my-car-that-nearly-collapsed-a-bridge. But they should create a significant change in the way your character relates to the world, or to others, or himself.
Then pick a few of those events and write out a one or two page short story describing the incident or conversation. It doesn’t need to have a self-contained plot. Just one moment of crisis, or a realization, or a few hurtful words he will always remember, or an unexpected act of grace. Those brief snapshots will tell you a lot about how your character will relate to the current obstacles in his life.
Interrogation Method: Pretend your character is a celebrity, and you are the resident stalker fan. List everything you know about your character: physical appearance, family, important moves in her career, and random trivia like her favorite brand of floss or whether she cuts her sandwich in half lengthwise or diagonally.
Face it: you don’t really know much about your protagonist at this point. Not on a deep level.
Now pretend your character is being interviewed for a job with the CIA and you are performing the background check. You must go to significant people in her past and ask about her moral character. Who would you choose to ask, and what are their relationships with her? What sort of information would you find about her strengths and weaknesses, and how did she reveal those in the way she lived?
Now we’re getting closer.
Finally, pretend your character is you. Think about what she would grab if the house was burning, and how she would feel about the rest of it going up in smoke. Make a list of your character’s dreams at age 8, then a list at age 18, then 38. Write a letter to someone significant in her life apologizing for something. Always try to feel what she feels and think like she thinks.
That’s it. Right there. If you can do that, you’ve probably got it down.