Writing Character Backstories

Hello everyone, and welcome back to my blog! This week, I’m answering a question from one of my writing peers, who asked for some tips and guidance for developing complex character backstories. To start off with, it’s important to note that there is no right way to create backstories; it’s really all about figuring out what works for your characters and your plans for them.

First and foremost, important parts of a character’s backstory will usually be linked to their future development. For example, if a character’s backstory involves them losing someone they loved, it would make sense for their future development to be to learn to stop fearing commitment and fall in love again. If their arc involves learning to become friends and making found family, perhaps their backstory could involve a betrayal of some kind, something that makes it difficult for them to trust.

Another important thing to note also is that a character’s backstory doesn’t need to be tragic or shocking for them to become who they are today. Many, many books, especially children’s and young adults, feature orphans or characters with a dead parent, but writers should remember that a character’s feelings are not invalid because their parents are alive, as much as a character can be happy if their parents are dead. People move on, change, and grow for better or for worse, and it’s good to bear that in mind.

People’s lives might be happy, or sad, but another important thing to remember is that they are never defined by a single emotion. Everyone has fond memories, good days and bad days, even if those things are few and far between. Equally, even the happiest person in the world will have shed a tear at least once.

Something that I have found often helps me is coming up with a list of memories for my characters, corresponding to different emotions. Some of the more important ones are as follows;

  • At least one memory that filled them with joy.
  • Someone they looked up to.
  • Something that scared them when they were younger. Are they still scared of it now, or do they look back and smile?
  • At least one thing that made them cry.
  • Something mundane that they think back on fondly. Can they look forward to experiencing it again?
  • The biggest decision they ever had to make.
  • The biggest obstacle they’ve ever had to overcome.

You can come up with as many of these as you want, and it can be a good way to begin thinking about how these things have affected your character and link to their character arc.

Backstories can be a tricky balancing act; a character having to struggle makes their victories sweeter, but fond memories make them feel more real. Even if none of these moments end up in your work, referring back to events offscreen can give your characters more depth, and knowing them better is always a good thing. Beyond that, it is important when writing to remember that the story you are telling is a tiny snapshot of that character’s life. They have experienced things before, and will(usually) experience things after.

Thank you all for joining me this week, and I’ll see you again next time!

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