Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Jackson Daigle, Nov 4, 2015.
I need help trying to develop my characters backgrounds.
Are you asking how to portray a character's background within a story? Or how to 'come up' with a character's background?
It's common to start with the basics (physical characteristics and childhood/upbringing) but I enjoy starting with their psychology instead as it will always come out in the story in some form. So, I suggest starting with a few well-thought-out emotions that the character has for their entire lives and/or wrestles with continually (skip the easy ones like sadness and anger - go for the jugular with complex emotions in order to flush out the true character that needs to be shown in the story, such as killer instinct from a life of always hunting for food, or avoidance behaviour from an insignificant event that later becomes monstrous in the character's mind). I think stuff like that (deeper background/planning) leads to more inspiration rather than the usual list of hair color, eye color, height, weight, etc. that are just facts but not really interesting in themselves. Hope that helps a bit. Cheers.
Here's my steps to character creation:
1. Give the character a purpose. Normally, characters are boring because they really don't have a purpose to begin with.
2. Simplify. Are there additional characters in there that could actually be just combined into one character?
3. Answer the three following questions: What is the character's goal, motive and conflict?
4. Decide how that character got to that point.
5. Repeat step 2.
There are questionnaires and things out there that you can use to 'interview' your character. They force you to come up with an answer and decide the details like how many siblings they have, where they grew up, their biggest fear, etc. But they won't be useful if you just pluck answers out of thin air. So, like @Jeff Countryman, I start with the character as s/he is now and work back from that to see what made him/her that way. Kind of the opposite to mapping out a character arc.
As an example: If a character is meek and submissive at the start of the book then I have to work out how she became meek and submissive. Did her parents verbally or physically abuse her if she talked back to them? Was her mother in an abusive relationship and she learned, as a child, that standing up for yourself leads to a beating? Did she have loving parents but her self-confidence was destroyed by bullying? Did she make some disastrous decisions in her youth and now thinks she isn't capable of making any decisions for herself - it's comforting to let someone else be in control? There are lots of possibilities and I choose the one that fits in best with the theme of my book.
Some of the details can be chosen for convenience. If it would help to have a scene where she talks to someone about her childhood, give her a brother she can share memories with.
Yes, especially to that last. If your character tells another character about the past, you do two things. First of all, of course, you inform the reader. But it also gives you a great chance to develop the characters of both the teller and the audience. What the teller actually says will reveal his thoughts and his personality, and the person who hears the story will respond in some fashion as well. So it's a device that does double-duty, and in a fairly painless way. A potential infodump becomes a story within a story, and you get to develop two characters as well.
I do something similar to @Tenderiser in that I create the character at the present point in time (though sometimes I'll already have ideas for backstory in mind) and then ask questions retroactively to get the past story straight. However, I don't usually develop backstory until I need to. Doing so beforehand (unless I already have an idea in mind) tends to restrict me. I want to keep my options open.
One thing I've noticed is that the reader doesn't need as much background as we usually think he/she does. Backstory is a curious thing. Often I find that it's useful for the writer to know, or at least fake. But outside of very specific events, chances are the character's past can usually stay where it is. By not creating backstory until I need it in the plot, not only does it free my character to develop how the story naturally develops her, but I also don't get bogged down trying to incorporate every piece of the backstory into the present story for no other reason than it exists.
Yes, backstory is useful for character development. But I find what's more useful is the present situation and how it affects the character right now.
Agree with @xanadu - I find my first draft has a lot of backstory for my benefit. I add it in as I go and as the character is developing in my mind. Nearly all of it can be eliminated in the edit.
That's pretty straightforward and good. It hits the core imo so I would definitely recommend checking this list out when you're about to get serious with your character's development.
Another thing I like is starting from a very rough concept, you know, the one that you always have when you first start forming a new character and then think about him like: What are his quirks? What is it that motivates him? Is he a thug who will go great lengths for money and power? Boom, you got a strong archetype to work wtih. And on with it: If so, hhow would he handle jail if he was put there? Is he an intelligent megalomaniac? How does he act towards other humans?
Another way is simply researching him, his world, his past and his current (monetary, emotional, circumstancial) situation. As you go deeper and deeper and things start falling into place more and more things will just follow and the character will 'write himself'. The goal is to have a real, authentic character. That is why it is important to start with who he is and that will then determine how he acts and why he does so.
If you start with the traits first it might backfire and you might very likely end up with a cliche on your hands, although that is not necessarily bound to happen.
I always try to tackle their profession first. I look for a profession that's not overdone by other writers. In the book I'm writing, the guy is an aeronautical engineer. My challenge is his younger than he should be to possess such a profession. Once I choose his profession, I focus on his issue. For example, what will delay or deter him from reaching his personal goals before he meets up with the girl? I had his military prototype helicopter derailed by an overzealous driver who was transporting it. His wife just died. He's suddenly a single parent. Mounting drama.
Afterwards, I begin research on the profession of aeronautical engineers and places he might travel to build a manufacturing plant.
Once you get the profession nailed down, during the research thoughts just come to you. And for the life of me, I couldn't tell you where I got some of the ideas. That's because at some point you get all caught up in the excitement and the character of this guy.
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