1. cruciFICTION
    Offline

    cruciFICTION Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    May 18, 2011
    Messages:
    1,236
    Likes Received:
    49
    Location:
    Brisbane, Australia

    Character Backgrounds - How important are they really?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by cruciFICTION, May 18, 2011.

    In writing the plot for the piece I'm in the process of beginning, I realised that barely any of my characters had backgrounds. Of the three characters I originally wrote, only one had a background, given that his was the cause for the story to happen. Strangely, he was only a supporting character, and my main character had no background whatsoever.

    My reasoning for this was that it was about who my main character is and who he is becoming, and has nothing to do with who he was before.

    I've found that a large portion of novels I've read feature characters whose backgrounds are largely filler material. The way I see it, for a plot line to progress along the desired course, a character needs to have minimum standards.
    For example, if a story is about someone who murders someone else and goes to prison, obviously they character needs to be very capable of murder in whatever degree. If the story progresses to them being killed in prison, then that gives thought to whether they are the kind of person who can survive in prison, and this allows you to decide how they murdered their victim and how they behave. (Sorry about the prison stuff. I've been watching Prison Break)

    Backstories, as I said, seem to be largely unimportant.


    Focus Questions:
    How important are back stories to you and your characters? How far do you develop them?
    How often would you honestly say that your "flashback" and back story material is used as filler and is of no real consequence to the basic plotline?


    Note: When I say "of no real consequence" to the basic plotline, understand that I mean that if that material was taken out, it would not change any opinion of the character to any great degree, et cetera.
     
  2. StrangerWithNoName
    Offline

    StrangerWithNoName Longobard duke

    Joined:
    Nov 5, 2009
    Messages:
    352
    Likes Received:
    8
    Location:
    the waste lands, somewhere in Europe
     
    1 person likes this.
  3. cruciFICTION
    Offline

    cruciFICTION Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    May 18, 2011
    Messages:
    1,236
    Likes Received:
    49
    Location:
    Brisbane, Australia
    Well, what length of detail do you go to? Surely there have been times when you've just jotted down a couple of small notes for it?

    Also, do you let the backgrounds come naturally from your subconscious and let it flow, or do you sit and consciously think them up?
     
  4. EdFromNY
    Offline

    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 13, 2010
    Messages:
    4,684
    Likes Received:
    2,534
    Location:
    Queens, NY
     
  5. spklvr
    Offline

    spklvr Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Oct 29, 2010
    Messages:
    734
    Likes Received:
    36
    Location:
    Sarpsborg, Norway
    Though if the story was about a murderer, I would love to know the back story. Maybe abuse or something that happened in the past caused it, and for someone like me who is very interested in the human psyche, gradually discovering what that was can be equally interesting as the current story. But really, it depends on how relevant it is. I always need to know my characters' pasts in order to make them realistic. I don't like it when characters start out as blank slates, and then gradually get a personality. And if they do have a personality, I would like to know some of what made them like that, though not in detail unless it was important.
    I personally rarely go into flashback mode, but like to reveal some of it to my only reader and future readers in conversation between my characters. One of my characters for example is kind of an a-hole in the beginning of the story, and to make him at all likable, you really do need to learn some of his past, though his past is also important to the current plot.
    Also in the story is a girl who is traveling with this a-hole and his grandfather even though she isn't related to them in anyway, and something like that I would imagine readers would be interested in knowing about.
    Well, my point is. Back story is important to the writer, but not always the reader. And while I think it's good to reveal some of it gradually in small portions, even if it's only for character development and not the plot itself, I don't like reading flashbacks that serve no purpose.
     
  6. Steerpike
    Online

    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 5, 2010
    Messages:
    11,100
    Likes Received:
    5,314
    Location:
    California, US
    I agree with Ed. Back stories are important - for the writer. I think your characters are more likely to be flat without them, and it is more likely their actions won't be as consistent because your depth of knowledge of the character, as the author, is too shallow.

    This does not mean the reader needs to know any or all of the back story. She may or may not, depending on the actual story. If the reader doesn't need to know it, then you can leave it out. But as the author, I think you need to know.
     
  7. StrangerWithNoName
    Offline

    StrangerWithNoName Longobard duke

    Joined:
    Nov 5, 2009
    Messages:
    352
    Likes Received:
    8
    Location:
    the waste lands, somewhere in Europe
    It depends by the story, I assume, there are some who work perfectly without any information on the background of the characters (Alien is the first novel/movie which comes to my mind) but for what I had in mind it's very important to know who are these persons and why they act differently in the same stressful situation.

    I am writing a sort of military space opera, IMO the problem of this genre are the cardboard or stock characters that populate these novels, after having read a while I can't even distinguish character A from novel B to character X from novel Y, so I decided to use a different approach taking inspiration from the WWII biographies, tales of my father who witnessed that conflict and my personal experience when I was drafted in the Armed Forces, and what I noticed was that every person involved in the conflict had a different personality that came from a different background, for instance, if you met in 1944 in Occupied Europe a german officer you could have either found a 21 years old graduate in a scientific major who got drafted, a working class guy who joined the Party in 1933 and came from the SA, the son of an old prussian family of lond military tradition, and these three lieutenants would have reacted differently in the same situation, to say, an antipartisan operation.

    When I started to write my story, I had in mind a choral tale with at least three or four main characters, and before writing the real story I wrote (at least in miny mind) the biographies of these four characters that I used as reference and I always keep in mind when I'm developing the plot, since I also have a strict chronology in my universe I have their birthdates in mind, what they were doing and where they were before the war etc... I ripped off something from real life persons I know and I knew, something else from famous characters of History (Pappy Boyngton, HJ Marseille, Hartmann) and I invented the rest and I think I'm doing a good job as characterization in order to avoid the stereotypes of the genre, but that was my approach because I want to write a coherent and realistic story, it's not necessary the good approach for everybody.
     
  8. StrangerWithNoName
    Offline

    StrangerWithNoName Longobard duke

    Joined:
    Nov 5, 2009
    Messages:
    352
    Likes Received:
    8
    Location:
    the waste lands, somewhere in Europe
     
  9. Lilithmoon
    Offline

    Lilithmoon Member

    Joined:
    May 13, 2011
    Messages:
    92
    Likes Received:
    5
    Location:
    US
    I believe the back story is generally more for the writer than the reader. I tend to develop the the back story as I need it and keep a running account in my mind. I shy away from committing too much to paper, so I won't be tempted to use it just because I have spent so much time on it.

    Thus, I can say, never is a flashback or back story filler in my case. I hope this makes sense. :)
     
  10. SeverinR
    Offline

    SeverinR Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Feb 15, 2011
    Messages:
    477
    Likes Received:
    7
    Location:
    New Madison Ohio
    I use background to support the characters identity.

    Why do they act like they do? Because of ______.

    I use background to show likes and dislikes, to give a glimpse of the person before the story. To make them seem more real.

    I probably use 5% of the background in a story, but I use the background to direct the character.

    The more I write about a character the more background I create.

    I also use background to create dialog. Where did you grow up? What did your parents do?
    Do you remember when we...?

    There are stories to be told that don't need alot of background. If the person is non-stop fighting for their life reflecting on history probably won't happen.
     
  11. cruciFICTION
    Offline

    cruciFICTION Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    May 18, 2011
    Messages:
    1,236
    Likes Received:
    49
    Location:
    Brisbane, Australia
    Thanks for your replies, everybody. I have actually taken the time to read them all, just so you all know.

    I have to disagree with you on those first few points.
    First, I'll say that I very much disagree with the idea that a character can seem more real by giving them a background and likes and dislikes and such. I won't bother elaborating. I just think that that belief has spawned out of the roleplaying character sheet "History" sections and such.

    As for the following: "Why do they act like they do? Because of ______."
    The point that I was attempting to make before is that a character and a plot line are perfectly intertwined. The plot line defines what is necessary in the character's behaviour, and if you change a character's behaviour, you have to make sure that following plot points are still possible for that character to perform.
    So the character technically acts a certain way because it is necessary for them to act that way (and to a lesser degree, the plot line is the way it is because it needs to be, but mostly because you want it to be, I hope).

    I also disagree with your point that the more you write about a character, the more background you create. I don't see why that should be necessary or productive, unless you mean that as you write you are literally creating extra background for them? I don't think you mean that, though.
    As you write, you're giving the person that they are more basis; therefore, the person they were becomes less relevant to the present timeline of the storyline. You don't have to rely on their background as much as you would at the beginning in order to direct them.


    Thanks again for all your responses, guys. You've all got really interesting points.
     
  12. Mallory
    Offline

    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 27, 2010
    Messages:
    4,274
    Likes Received:
    191
    Location:
    Tampa Bay
    When developing characters, the key things to focus on are issues like:

    - motivation (what causes them to take the action that makes them MC-worthy, not that they have to be overly heroic, but what pulls them into the plot's conflict and causes them to fight it)

    - things that make them afraid, angry, and threatened (both trivial phobias and serious concerns). These will serve as obstacles, setbacks and will explain the mistakes your character makes. For example, think about how Monk is so OCD that he will risk getting caught by the bad guy just so he can fix a book that's tilted weirdly on the library shelf. If any other detective did that, you'd slam your head against the wall and put the book down, but with Monk it makes sense. Even if it's a legit concern and not a flaw or quirk, it can still be used the same way.

    - to what lengths will the character go

    - what does the character try to avoid as far as the skeleton in the closet or the fear he/she doesn't want to face

    - if there's a change in motivation or viewpoints, what causes it

    As far as things like backstory, only include them if they play a bigger role later and can be tied in. If, for example, your MC's uncle once worked as a prison operator of some kind, and you mention it early on but don't make a big deal of it, it can come into play later if your MC knows things like where the escape routes are via his uncle. But if you never bring it up until it's time for the prison break, it'll feel like a corny Deux Ex Machina. If something seemingly trivial plays no important role later, don't bring it up. There's no reason to throw in things like uncle's occupation, MC's childhood family's income,etc for no reason....it'll come across as annoying filler, which of course it would be.
     
  13. Florent150
    Offline

    Florent150 Member

    Joined:
    Dec 5, 2010
    Messages:
    82
    Likes Received:
    3
    Location:
    York
    I think it depends on the story and genre really. With the one I'm working on now, the character's backgrounds are extremely important. I think it's more important in epics in particular too.

    Take Harry Potter as an example. The story wouldn't work or be as effective without the backstory; everything pre-Philosopher's Stone that happens to Harry and others is defining and integral.
     
  14. popsicledeath
    Offline

    popsicledeath Banned

    Joined:
    Nov 11, 2010
    Messages:
    1,037
    Likes Received:
    71
    There's a difference between a character having a back story and history they live with, that is relevant and revealed as needed, and a novel becoming a textbook for its own world. The mistake writers make is to give all the back story, hoping that informs their characters, but then the characters don't feel as if they're living their own history. It becomes all intellectual. The villain is the villain because that one event the writer informed us of in the prologue, and the depth ends there. We're told the MC is what he is because of the list of events the writer informed us of, but the MC doesn't feel like the culmination of those events.

    The problem with back story being written into a story is that most writers take the 'back' part of it too literally, so present it first, thinking that will set the stage. Most readers won't care that much, will skim the information or just put the book down. Good stories have tons of back story, it's just that all that history becomes part of the story, part of the characters, part of the scene, part of the moments, and is connected to everything as our own personal histories are, not a disconnected biography at the start of a story.

    We don't meet people and say: Hi, my name is... when I was three I was... then at 5 my parents... by 8 I had.... etc.

    Our personal histories come out for others as relevant and as a part of everything we say, think, and do. So too in fiction should it feel this way, or it will feel contrived and false.

    And flashbacks are terrible unless your character is literally going into some sort of trance.
     
  15. Mallory
    Offline

    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 27, 2010
    Messages:
    4,274
    Likes Received:
    191
    Location:
    Tampa Bay
    Yes - but with HP, the stuff with the Dursleys is important to the story. It serves as the main conflict before Harry gets the Hogwarts acceptance letter, and each book has a comical, interesting scenario of how Harry escapes from them at the end of each summer. So this type of backstory is integral...when I said non-crucial backstory was irrelevant I just meant when authors tried to force in little details, like favorite soda brand and mother's maiden name, all the time for "character development."
     
  16. Yoshiko
    Offline

    Yoshiko Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 14, 2009
    Messages:
    758
    Likes Received:
    27
    Insanely important. Yet they rarely, if ever, come up in the novel itself because I feel it's irrelevent. Who cares about what happened to them in the past? The present is where it's at.

    I feel it's important to know your characters but it's not necessary to throw this information into the story. My novel starts when my MC is 28, yet I know all the major events in his life right from when his sister disappeared in the night at age eight: I know why he ran away from home at age 16 and ended up working odd jobs in England before crossing the border; how he ended up in the city the novel starts in; how and where he lived with his ex-girlfriend and exactly how the events went that lead up to her stabbing him; what his life was like before his partner (whom he had adopted the child of) died; what happened following his partner's death and the two people he was involved with while trying to heal; etc. Is any of this relevant to the novel? Not one bit! But it's important that I know this information because it helps me to understand his character better. Readers won't find out much, if any, of this - and that's fine. The story makes sense without it.
     
  17. Ellipse
    Offline

    Ellipse Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 8, 2010
    Messages:
    714
    Likes Received:
    32
    I don't understand how you can create a character with no background. There is always a reason for the way a character acts/speaks/behaves. They have motives for the things they do.

    The characters that have no background are the faceless ones that never get mentioned because they are part of the local scenery.
     
  18. JimFlagg
    Offline

    JimFlagg Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Apr 26, 2011
    Messages:
    375
    Likes Received:
    6
    Can you write a story without any character back ground. Technique yes. If the story has characters that are not having any self struggles.

    I think this would make for boring reading though. The back ground predicts how a character will react to a situation and how he/she will make decisions. In addition, the back story helps build a bond with the reader and the character. Either the reader will hate him/her or love him/her. There should be no indifference or you may have a shallow character and the reader may lose interest in the story.

    Just MHO.
     
  19. Ophiucha
    Offline

    Ophiucha Member

    Joined:
    Jun 6, 2010
    Messages:
    74
    Likes Received:
    3
    Location:
    Surrey, BC
    How important are back stories to you and your characters? How far do you develop them? That quite depends on the character, I would say. For my protagonist, his backstory is near entirely irrelevant. All that I need to know is that he was friends with characters X, Y, and Z prior to the story beginning. I might decide on a few other things, how he knows them and whatnot, but I don't know a damn thing about his childhood or his career up until the point when the story begins, because I don't need to in order to tell his story. Other characters, oppositely, are basically built on the actions of their past.

    How often would you honestly say that your "flashback" and back story material is used as filler and is of no real consequence to the basic plotline? Only if they are of great consequence to the plot would I include any back story beyond a one line quip, and even that one line would have to be of at least minor consequence. If it is filler of any sort, I don't write it. Particularly back story. At least if I have a "everyone goes to the beach" scene, I can develop their characters as they are today; I don't really care about developing them by showing you a day they went to school.
     
  20. Tesoro
    Offline

    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 3, 2011
    Messages:
    2,825
    Likes Received:
    290
    Location:
    A place with no future
    I'd say it is very important and more so that YOU the writer knows the background of your characters even though you choose not to write much about it. This is because if you know it you will also know how they will react to different situations and more important; WHY. you know how they think and behave and how they relate to the people around them. What are their goals in life (and in the story) etc, etc...and this is helpful for YOU while writing the story.
     
  21. Masli
    Offline

    Masli Member

    Joined:
    Oct 22, 2010
    Messages:
    88
    Likes Received:
    1
    Location:
    Netherlands
    I think it's extremely important. Afterall a person without a past isn't a real person at all. Everyone carries their pasts with them. It's what makes them the person they are today. To leave everything out of it, will make the character look empty.

    Besides from a reader's pov, if the story is good and the character has caught me in his/her grip, I would want to get to know them better. What made them who they are now?

    A good example of this I think are the books of the vampire chronicles by Anne Rice. In the first books she trows some characters together and plays around with them, and because they all have such interesting pasts she created entire books for the backstories of her characters! And believe me none of them felt like fillers to me. I was itching to know more about these characters. Why do they react to things like they do? What made these characters to what they are now?

    The trick is though that you shouldn't just dump all the info on the reader; First let them get to know the characters like they are now. Make them draw the reader in. Make them want to get to know the character better. Then you can start slipping in more and more of the background.

    For instance when someone flinches away from physical contact every time say someone touched their hand or something, it would be weird. I mean it's not like it hurts or anything, right? But when the reader knows that the character had an abusive past for instance, it becomes clear why the character reacts the way he/she does insetad of thinking he/she has some kind of weird mental thingy going on.
     
  22. Florent150
    Offline

    Florent150 Member

    Joined:
    Dec 5, 2010
    Messages:
    82
    Likes Received:
    3
    Location:
    York
    Oh I was replying to the OP :p And maybe I'm misunderstanding the thread, I was refering to the deal with Voldemort as a child etc.
     
  23. popsicledeath
    Offline

    popsicledeath Banned

    Joined:
    Nov 11, 2010
    Messages:
    1,037
    Likes Received:
    71
    Providing back story for a character via a prologue or exposition filled first chapter is much different from characters having enough of a back story it can become it's own story. I think the OP was talking more about the practice where some writers seem to think they need to summarize a blow by blow account of the character's life events, and that that's how character depth is built. It's not.

    Obviously back story is important, as people have been noting, but I'm seeing some people make the mistaken connections that back story is good since it can make entirely new stories! Yeah, that's not back story, though, that's just story. Back story is when you pause a story or don't yet start a story because the writer feels it necessary to first summarize the character's life, and is almost always bad story telling.
     
  24. Lord Malum
    Offline

    Lord Malum Senior Member

    Joined:
    Apr 22, 2011
    Messages:
    155
    Likes Received:
    7
    Location:
    Kansas City, KS
    I give all my characters extensive backgrounds even if they're only in a few scenes throughout the story. Most of their backgrounds never make it into the story, but it helps inform how they would behave in certain situations. Backgrounds are vital to all characters and when your characters don't have one they fall flat and your readers will put down your story.
     
  25. cruciFICTION
    Offline

    cruciFICTION Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    May 18, 2011
    Messages:
    1,236
    Likes Received:
    49
    Location:
    Brisbane, Australia
    I had a massively long post that I wanted to let people read, but instead, I'll just be short and sweet and I won't reply to all the things I was going to reply to.

    What I'll say for myself now may help people understand a little more, I hope, though.

    I believe that you limit yourself as a writer by giving massive, detailed backgrounds and considering them to be as important as you people clearly do. The only definite way to know how someone will react to something is if they're similar in temperament and experience to yourself. That doesn't mean that all your characters need to be similar to you; it means that your characters are freer without backgrounds. You can give them a consistent personality without relying on prior definition. What you're doing is defining them as you write, and if you stay consistent, then they can come across as very real.

    Particularly if you write the way I do by letting it all flow very much out of the subconscious, you shouldn't have a problem writing a character without a background.
    Half the time I don't even remember what I've written because I don't write consciously. I zone out and let my fingers dance and I read it over later to make sure I didn't do anything completely screwed up.
     

Share This Page