1. isaac223
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    isaac223 Member

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    Character History/Backstories -- How to Make Them Relevant?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by isaac223, Aug 9, 2016.

    Typically, characters usually have certain backstories to drop them into the plot and to make them who they are today, so to simultaneously drop them into and make them relevant to the plot based on their actions (usually in relation to our main character) -- at least that's how I see them.

    But how exactly would I write characters their backstories and make them all be relevant to points much later in the plot than when they were introduced to the audience and make it seem like it occurs naturally? Types of relevance I like is when something that seems somewhat unrelated to the overarching plot in their backstory, regardless of how small or big the occurrence actually is, actually becomes a crucial plot-point. Of course, also having a certain occurrences come back and influence the main plot is also important.

    Basically, what I'm asking is: How would I write a backstory that isn't just there to give one character reason to exist or be what they are, but also be something that enriches the plot and the world for the audience? Making potentially subtle (or more pronounced) connections between two previously seemingly discrete backstories?

    Follow-up: How would I write a tragic backstory and also make it relevant to the plot like I asked above? And if I were to want to make multiple characters have some form of bad history, for, say, a particular genre (melding Fantasy and Psychological Thriller, for example) how many is too many? Making potentially subtle (or more pronounced) connections between two previously seemingly discrete backstories?
     
  2. I.A. By the Barn
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    I.A. By the Barn A very lost time traveller Contributor

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    I may have mis-interpreted what you mean but are you asking how several back stories link together and with the main plot?
    Well if that's so it'll be hard just to say do a b c and d as it will be different for each plot and character. Remember a tragic back story will mean it will have influenced the person alot so the back story also has to fit the character.
    Without knowing more about your plot I can't really help.
     
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  3. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    So - in broad brush strokes - my personal way of doing this is to make sure that the backstory is intimately connected with the plot action from it's inception. That is to say that either the backstory is created to ensure that a character can act the way that the plot needs them to act (and therefore is relevant to the plot) or that you get to the point where you know the backstory so well that the backstory actually starts DICTATING how the character acts in certain situations (you learn what makes them tick, and then they start reacting in non-standard ways that you didn't expect, because YOU have learned what THEIR learned experience tells them to do).

    You can do the first part of that on the front end - I've said this before but I like to start characters by positing two contradictory traits and then extrapolate how those two things can exist together in one person using backstory (built-in internal conflict). The example I always use there is my character "Vinya" who is a practicing Jain who works as a music-industry journalist (anti-materialist value set, deeply materialistic obsession with pop culture - viola, conflict!). The nuts and bolts of building that character (for me) was going back into her childhood, dealing with her relationship with her parents and her siblings, figuring out what made her love electronic music so much - then working forward through how her psyche was shaped by her role as the black sheep in a deeply conservative family, the tension of being a first generation immigrant in California with one foot in traditional Indian culture and the other literally in Hollywood, etc. I started on her two years ago with those basics, but once I really got to know her - whether through research or writing experience or just thinking about why she does what she does - Vinya started making her own decisions in a sense. I'm not one of those people whose characters mentally "rebel" all the time and I have to change the plot on the fly (that's only happened to me once), but I have gotten to the point where I really have enough of sense of who Vinya is, all of the emotional inputs that go into her behavior, that I know that she doesn't just do what I need her to do for the plot. Vinya can only do things that Vinya would do, because she's been through a lot of stuff in her life, and that shapes everything about how she chooses to act - and I as a writer have to be true to that at some level.
     
  4. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    And you can have more than one tortured backstory - almost all of my characters have some big unfilled need ticking at the center of their motivation - granted that's because they're all reporters who packed up and moved to Washington to chase dreams, and the entire point of the story is that emotionally whole people don't generally do that.

    But you can make variations - I have two best friends whose backstories I purposefully designed as mirror images of each other. One of them (Nina) grew up the youngest child of a family that owned a diner in Wisconsin, was motivated by a strong-willed older sister who was a dream-chaser, but felt family pressure to stay in her hometown and not rise too far out of her class. Her roommate (Vinya), is the second-youngest of seven children, grew up in privilege, has a family who thinks her journalistic dreams are below their class, and has a simmering resentment toward her older sister who always encouraged her in private but never stood up for her in public. So you have two women who both have essentially the same back story - baby-of-the-family fighting pressure to conform, with motivation in the form of an older sister's bad experience - but I've inverted the class aspect (one's a riser, the other is taking a step down) and given them opposite sister issues (Nina's sister was a rebel role-model who blew up the family unit, Vinya's was a good girl who folded to family pressure).

    The only thing is that I wouldn't do the SAME tortured backstory for everyone. For instance, I have a lot of female journalist characters and I make a point of only having one who is motivated by past physical abuse. Using it once is realism, not using it at all is sugarcoating, but using it over and over is a particularly revolting cliche.

    Also it helps to have one person who DOESN'T have a tragic backstory - especially if everyone else does. That by itself creates conflict.
     
    Last edited: Aug 15, 2016
  5. Lifeline
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    Lifeline The Dark - not in Wonderland Supporter Contributor

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    Thank you! I couldn't have put it better. I actually don't understand how one could write any other way - but that may just be me. The backstory is crucial in that, that the MCs wouldn't be the people they are without it. Of course, ideally the backstory should be the seeds of the current conflict (in terms of plot as well as in terms of internal character conflict), leading up to it and the actual start of the story only the inciting incident. Starting at this point the reader will have simultaneously character conflict and plot conflict. And you as the author have valid reason and ample opportunity to bring tension into it bit by bit, as the reader learns in dribbles what drives them to their decisions.
     
  6. deadrats
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    deadrats Active Member

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    I write backstory as needed. Doing it this way usually means it's quite relevant to the overall story and fits more naturally. I don't write it separately and then try to drop it in. You might actually be making things harder on yourself if you are writing up backstories and then trying to figure out where to place them in the story. I'm not really sure what to say about that approach other than it seems like it could be quite difficult. You also are asking how to make a tragic backstory relevant to your plot. I don't think anyone can easily answer that for you. Either it is or it isn't relevant. If you are having trouble making the backstory part of the story, maybe it doesn't need to be there.
     
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  7. deadrats
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    deadrats Active Member

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    What? Emotionally whole people to not chase dreams? Maybe you meant reporters are not emotionally whole. As a formal reporter, I can say that that might be true, but I don't see anything off about a reporter moving to Washington. I went places a hell of a lot crazier than that chasing my journalism dreams.
     
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  8. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yeah I probably could rephrase that - for what it's worth I live in Washington and work around Capitol Hill and have a little experience in newsrooms so I'm not entirely off.

    A better way to phrase that probably would have been that emotionally whole people are less likely to suffer from near-toxic levels of ambition - even if that ambition is "save the world" or "crusade for truth".

    That and I was talking more about DC as a town - or "This Town" as people around here like to call it (in reference to the book of the same title) - than about reporters as a profession. We have a high concentration of people who have too much ambition for their own good - and building an entire local society on that basis (ambition in it's various forms) leads to some deeply unhealthy and scary things. Plus people who aren't like that when they come can get sucked in and become that. And yes I'm one of those people and I've become cynical about it :p
     
    Last edited: Aug 11, 2016
  9. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    And remember what I said earlier that it helps to have one or two people who DON'T have that tortured motivation - I have one of those who became a reporter anyway (okay - she's minimally tortured - pampered rich kid). Of course that means that the plot IS her tortured backstory and I pretty much spend a bunch of time running over her pristine, innocent psyche with a metaphorical truck. But she is there :)
     
  10. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    Start with the plot and design your characters to fulfill it.

    Backstory is about justification and motivation. If, in your plot, you need a character to carry out a specific action, but that action is not something they would normally do, look to backstory to provide both the normal and the abnormal behaviours (so the reader can see the difference; a good story, like art, is about contrast).

    Both normal and abnormal behaviour will arise from past trauma or past conditioning (most often from childhood) and how the character will act at any given moment will depend on how closely current circumstance mimics other situations from their past. When everything's going smoothly, conditioning will prevail, but when something out of the ordinary happens, traumatic behaviour will take over.

    For some, this spurs them to heroic deeds while for others, it forces them into hiding. Eventually, though, even the latter will have to take some kind of action in order to fulfill the plot. Enter backstory again. Give the character a past trauma during which they found their own solution to the problem and you have a way for them to deal with the current problem. But if you know the current problem first (plot) you have a much better idea of how to design their backstory so they will actually rise to the occasion.
     
  11. Oscar Leigh
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    Oscar Leigh Contributing Member

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    I always have a sense of where they came from that I will think about. But I won''t do flashbacks or expository monologues or anything featuring it unless it's relevant. That said, little hints at it can be cool.
     
  12. isaac223
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    isaac223 Member

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    Thank you for your help.

    What I was thinking of was an event that occurs in the plot not just reflecting something in their past, but... An event in their past being directly tied in with the plot. If the character is there and acts, and has a backstory that motivates and drives them, they'd be a good character if done well, yes, but... Wouldn't they be wholly pointless if nothing about their past ties in at all with what's currently happening?
     
  13. isaac223
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    isaac223 Member

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    Your entire two comments were very much helpful, but this above all else caught my eye. Contradictory traits seems like a perfect way to not only intrigue the reader but also think of an interesting backstory and that is something I will very much keep in mind. Thank you for your very helpful comments.
     
  14. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    There are lots of tricks to getting this information into the story as painlessly as possible. They don't all work in the same instances, but can work if used in a natural way.

    Here's one that's devastatingly simple, but has many advantages.

    Let one character tell another character what his background story is. That way the reader gets it from the point of view of the character himself (even if this character isn't the POV character.) It gives you a chance to develop this character by the way he tells his story—the words he chooses, what he finds difficult to admit, what he enjoys, what bothers him, etc.

    It also gives his audience a chance to react. Audience reaction can break up the blocks of information, which is good for how the reading will flow. It makes the backstory more conversational. It also—and this is crucial—can emphasise points you might want the reader to notice in particular. If a character reacts to what another character is telling him, that makes the reader sit up and take notice.

    Of course this can be over-used, and can be inappropriate—if the character doesn't want his backstory revealed, or isn't the sort who would talk about himself—but it's a useful trick in your writer's bag of tricks.
     
  15. isaac223
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    isaac223 Member

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    Ahh, it does seem like one of those rares tropes that can somehow be overused yet not make you roll your eyes whenever its used. Of course, you need to be careful when you use it and with whom, but thank you for reminding me of that little trick there.


    On a somewhat related note, but more of a huge tangent than not, might I ask a somewhat irrelevant question? Everyone who has responded seems wholly helpful and I'd rather not continuously make new threads every time a new question enters my mind.
     
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  16. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    ermm...I think so....:)
     
  17. isaac223
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    isaac223 Member

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    Well, it is partially related in the sense its somewhat related to the topic of backstories, but...

    See, I have a particular lore planned out... Long story short, the only way for creatures that are considered "Supernatural" or just out of the ordinary to exist, or items of the same nature, is for a process similar to the obtaining of "magic" to be undergone -- of course with a core different that results in the divergence in the development of their supernatural aspects, the divergence causing the development to turn from the changing of their mind (a core component in the utilization, and a potential price of utilization of magic) to the changing of their body... (unbeknownst to the person undergoing such processes, of course)

    Anyhow, its hard to explain in as succinct a manner as I'd like to go for, but... When either of the processes is undergone, a supernatural reaction causes the two layers of the mind -- Consciousness and Subconsciousness -- to diverge into two entities that influences the nature of a newly developed node of consciousness, the nature of which is an amalgam of the consciousness and subconsciousness become prominent (surfacing of suppressed thoughts, emotions, memories, personality traits, among other things, etc)...

    Well, long story short, the nature of that new developed node of consciousness is what drives the development of these supernatural creature's bodies and the nature of the "magical" items that could be present, the abilities of which directly correlates with symbolic imagery that corresponds with the main and sole thing a being whose personality and mind is dictated by this "node" would imagine...

    Well, there's more to it, mixing in some aspects of the Many-Worlds Interpretation as well as Metaphysics but... Anyhow, if the nature of this node is what drives the development of one's body into either a supernatural creature or item, would it be necessary to go into detail as to why their mind caused the node to develop them into such an entity? And if so, would it be considered a problem if there's not actually a way to discern the nature of such, and the existence of such items or super natural creatures be brought into question, be considered a contrivance or, well, any problem at all?
     
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  18. isaac223
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    isaac223 Member

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    Of course it isn't totally related to the topic at hand, but, I figured it easy to ask the nice people already responding to this threat instead of cluttering the forums with constant posting every time I need more assistance with something, so... Sorry if the unrelated question is an issue.
     
  19. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes, you're right. So, in a case like that, a different character whose past does tie in would make the story more engaging.
     
  20. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I'll leave this one to other writers who deal with the supernatural. It's just not one of my things. But it's something a lot of people do like to write about here on the forum, so I imagine you'll get lots of help with this. You might want to start another thread—maybe under plot development? It seems like a different enough question from your first one, and it might attract the kind of help you need.
     
  21. isaac223
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    isaac223 Member

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    Well, I suppose I must then. Thank you, though.

    What is the extent to which a backstory should correlate to the main plot? I mean, I'm likely overthinking things here, but is there, say... a minimal and/or maximum amount a backstory should actually be responsible for something in the main plot. be the indirect cause of or otherwise be related to?
     
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  22. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I'm not saying you should start a new thread by the way. By all means carry on here if people respond. But you might attract more of the input you need with a different thread. I think there's a danger that your second question will get buried here.

    Your original post was asking about HOW to make a backstory relevant. This new question seems to be asking WHETHER a specific backstory should be included in your specific plot. Both are fine questions, but might get more attention if they are separated.

    There is also a Fantasy sticky in the By The Genre section, and that might get you the input from other fantasy/supernatural enthusiasts.
     
    Last edited: Aug 14, 2016
  23. Marlon Manalese
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    Marlon Manalese Member

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    You can make backstories relevant by causing present timeline events to trigger the character's memories. For instance, some kind of trauma they experienced as a child. Maybe they fell out of their change table, so their sleeping mattress at home is on the floor. But then sleeping over at say a one night stand's house or apartment, sleeping on a bed elevanted by a frame can give them anxiety.

    Yeah weird example I know lol, just didn't want to make it incredibly dark or anything like that.

    It would also have to be an important thing for the character to overcome or at least make a trait that is important to their behaviour.

    As for too many backstories? I mean, you can write backstories for ALL your characters just to get a sense of who they are, but not all of that info will be put into the final product. Maybe you only show a few things like a princess learning how to fight because her father didn't want her to be spoiled and entitled, and heavily dependent on bodyguards. Her fighting prowess can be shown in the story, but doesn't require a full backstory scene to explain. It can just be mentioned in exposition or in a line of dialogue of her's.

    I think too many backstories being brought up at once will make it too crowded and very devoid of any present moment action, so be careful with fleshing out too many characters' backstories.
     
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  24. karldots92
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    karldots92 Active Member

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    In my fantasy WIP I actually find myself writing the backstories for the main characters as stories in an of themselves. The basic idea of my work is a group of adventurers who worked together when they were younger and then went their separate ways. Now they are all middle aged and have to come back together to defeat the villain. So now that I have gotten into it I find myself writing separate stories for each of the characters into what happened to them since they last met. And even further back into what their relationship dynamics were like when they were together originally. What I find is that certain decisions taken in previous situations drive a decision in a certain direction in the current situation depending on how it worked out the last time. And while all their back stories on the surface seem to separate serious of events they are all tied together by being driven by the same villain they now have to defeat. And all of these different stories are being written simultaneously which helps being able to tie them together.
     
  25. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    My take on it is that backstory should come out to clarify the POV character's motivations, attitude toward a particular set of circumstances, and/or emotional reactions as they're making decisions about what to do next. Then it should disappear into the back of the character's mind until/if it's needed again.
     

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