Last week, we talked about fleshing out characters by thinking of how they’d react in everyday situations that might not come up in the story. Another important factor in building characters that resonate with readers is working through their back story.
Where did the character go to school? Did they have lots of friends? Or were they more of a bookworm than a social butterfly? Do they have siblings? A close-knit family? Did they have pets?
There are so many details that writers can think about in creating a character’s past. It isn’t really possible to work through all of them. Seriously, some of my characters are thousands of years old. If I tried to figure out every detail down to their childhood best friend’s dog’s name, I’d never get around to writing the book. I try to keep myself focused on what informs the actual narrative of the story, and those pieces of the character’s past usually reveal themselves while I’m writing.
When I’m writing a first draft, it’s almost like the character is born on the first page. As I write, I get to know them better and better. In edits, I take all that I learned and reshape the characters in the earlier parts of the book to make them more authentic to who they’ve revealed themselves to be. I always get glimpses of their pasts during this process.
(Note: since I use my own books as examples, there are some big whomping spoilers below 🙂 )
I knew that Garrett, from The Summer Park Psychics, loves deeply and fiercely. He protects his loved ones, and sees himself in a caretaker role. That makes sense for a doctor, but on the page, he was a little…extra about it. I wasn’t exactly sure why at first.
When I wrote the scene in Whispering Hearts with the scarlet snake in his garage (and yes, it was a scarlet snake, not a coral snake), and he absolutely freaked out, I realized there had to be something in his past feeding into these reactions. It took me a while to get to the answers, running through possible scenarios that led to more and more plausible scenarios that led to the one that felt like his truth.
Garrett carried the weight of his brother’s death—a death caused by a snake bite, and possibly hastened by Dylan racing Garrett home in an effort to reassure his little brother that everything was okay. Everything was not okay, and Garrett was forever changed by the experience.
Once I had that knowledge, I was able to deepen other moments in the book. I had already written a scene where Rachel finds a scorpion in Garrett’s dishwasher (that’s actually based on a true story *shivers*). In edits, I was able to add Garrett’s history with venomous animals to his reaction, amping it up from “I must protect the woman I love,” to “Holy Jesus Christ, what if it stings her and she has a life-threatening allergic reaction to it and why the hell did I buy a house so far out in the country where there are so many bugs running around?” Developing a character’s past can make a book so much stronger.
I don’t always delve so deep that I can feel the fennel leaves brushing against my face as I run over the shifting sands with my characters like I did with Garrett. Sometimes, it’s enough just to get a hint at what happened (and it would be overwhelming to know more).
With Tessa, from The Blades of Janus, I knew she’d witnessed things that I do not want in my mind. At all. Ever. For years, she lived with a monstrous creature called a Hive Father (one of the creepiest beings I have ever come up with) who first claimed her as his daughter, then decided to try to turn her into his mate.
I still shiver when I read the scene where Tessa talks about being at one of Edgar’s “dweller dinner parties” while she was trapped with him. But—and this is the really important part—I did not spend any time whatsoever actually in that moment with her in my head or on the page (sorry, Tessa). She told me when she told Marcus, and that was enough for the story.
If I’d gone any deeper into that moment, either on my own while outlining and plotting, or on the page with my reader right beside me, the book would have turned out much darker than I wanted it to be. It’s important to know where to draw the line—when to dive deep into back story and when to skim over its surface.
I skimmed over the parts while Tessa was with Edgar, but spent time with her both before and after she was captured. I needed to dive deeper into her past. At the heart of all my stories is a romance, and Marcus is… Well, look at him.
I knew I wanted Tessa to join the Blades eventually, so she had to be able to come back from her belief that all dwellers are monsters. I spent more time with her off the page, looking at where this attitude had come from, beyond her experiences with Edgar, and found that her mother had indoctrinated Tessa to believe that all dwellers needed to be killed (which really, really complicates things for the hero in Progenitor).
Tessa also carries her own guilt over an accident that happened when she was still seeking a cure for her “infection”. It comes up a few times in the story, and was important enough to actually factor in during one of the pivotal scenes in the book. I did spend time in that section of her past, learning more about her and laying groundwork for events that stretch beyond Pack and will factor into future books in the series.
“You [Blades] think you get to police hunters and that monsters should have rights. Well, guess what? If a werewolf wants to retain a lawyer, it eats him.“
—Tessa, The Blades of Janus, book one, Pack
The work I did with this one character helped develop the plot of her book, influenced the second, and will ripple out through the rest of the series. It helped me understand the world of the Blades better, and honestly, it made me like Tessa a whole lot more.
An added benefit of spending time with characters outside of their books is that sometimes as writers we find the need to actually write out the scenes we see. There’s no substitute for actually getting the words down and seeing what we’ve created. And sometimes we can share those scenes with our readers, giving everyone a deeper appreciation for the worlds we’re escaping to.
Give characters a past, and the readers will sense it. The fictional world will be enriched by it. And it’s one more step in making characters feel real.