Building a Backstory

building-a-backstoryAs we’ve discussed before there are a lot of people out there who will tell you that you have to know everything about a character before you begin, especially their backstory. This isn’t true, for some people working out the characters in-depth first works very well but not for all writers. As I keep saying everyone’s creative process is different and that’s perfectly fine.

As such it is acceptable not to know your character’s backstory until you start writing the first draft and get to know them better. As I’ve said before we don’t always know how our characters will react until we put them into situations. Part of backstory is knowing why they react the way they do and if we aren’t sure yet how they will react then we can’t be sure why they react that way. For instance we might not realise that a character is afraid of heights until we put them in a high place and discover it. Then we have to think about why? It could be that they fell out of a tree as a child or it might be they don’t even know why and it bothers them.

It might even be a case that we don’t realise a character’s backstory until they are put in a situation where they reveal some of it. If we do this but later on decide it doesn’t work and their backstory should be different that’s also alright. First drafts are for experimenting so we can find the holes and the weak spots in the story and work out how things should go because we don’t have to be one hundred percent certain before we begin, a lot of writers aren’t.

Research may also inform a character’s background so as we progress through a story and become more familiar with aspects of it we may change the character’s backstory. For instance, if we’re writing a historical novel we may learn something about the time period that we didn’t know before and that informs the character. A basic example might be that while writing Victorian Mistress I learnt more about women’s wear in the Victorian period and it became increasingly obvious that Charlotte would not be able to fight in those clothes, particularly the incredibly heavy restrictive fashionable clothing. As such it became increasing obvious much and why she would prefer men’s clothing, particularly working clothes, which allowed more movement than a corset. Particularly when I discovered corsets could cause women’s core muscles to atrophy and core strength would be very important to Charlotte.

If we do plan out our character’s backstory before we begin but discover it doesn’t work for the story or the character then it is still acceptable to change it. At no point should a writer feel the need to shoehorn an element into a story that doesn’t work simply because it was in their plan. While planning can be very useful for writers, though not all writers, it is best to look at it as a guideline. As I’ve said we learn a lot about characters and story writing the first draft and can come the realise that what we thought was going to happen isn’t what should happen in the story.

All this is acceptable, a story and characters are organic things that grow in our imaginations rather than static cut-outs that never change.

For more writing advice see my Advice Page. For more on characters see Finding The Characters.

NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.

Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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