When figuring out your story, you have to take into consideration who your characters are beyond their physical characteristics. I’ve already discussed using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to figure out your character’s deeper needs and motivations. Now I want to focus on another important element: the backstory.
There are a number of different methods writers use to develop their characters. Some wing it while panstering their first draft (i.e. they haven’t completed an outline or characterizations first). Others fill in questionnaires and interviews to get to know their characters before starting the first draft. Some writers figure out the characterizations after writing the outline; others do it before hand.
There is no right or wrong method. Use whatever works for you. But regardless of when and how you create your characters, there is one element I want you to really spend time thinking about: your characters’ backstories.
And I’m not referring to only your main character. Know the backstories for all the key players. This doesn’t mean you’re going to dump huge chunks of backstory in your story, either. But what you are going to do is figure out what past events made them who they are today or shaped their behavior. Only then will your characters have depth, and their actions will be realistic to who they are.
For example, say you have a twenty-year-old main character who was raped eight months ago by someone she knew. There are a number of possible scenarios that could have happened afterwards:
A. She reported it to the police, the guy was arrested, and she was eventually able to heal with the help of a support group and supportive friends and family.
B. She never reported it to the police, but she did reach out to a helpline for survivors of rape. She might have told her family and friends, or she might have kept quiet about it with the people she’s close to.
C. She never reported it to the police and never reached out to a helpline or support group. She doesn’t have the opportunity to heal and suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. When guys touch her or try to get close, she either withdraws or freaks out.
D. Similar situation to C, but her attitude towards guys is different. She figures sex is all she’s good for (why else was she raped), and consciously searches for sexual encounters to prove herself right. Most people wouldn’t even guess she was a survivor of rape because she goes against the typical stereotype.
All four of these scenarios happen in real life. This shows how vital research is to characterization. However, it’s not enough just to know how you character responded to the rape. What was her life like before it happened? Were there events in her past that would have determined how she would have reacted to the rape? The more you know about your character’s past, the better. Maybe you won’t know it right away. Maybe it will develop further as you write your first draft. Maybe more of her backstory will come to you during the fourth draft. That’s okay, too. The point is to let it happen. Only then will your characters become more dimensional.Now enter the hero of the story. Each of these girls is going to respond to him differently. And what about his backstory?
- Is he kind of guy who believes a girl is really saying “yes” when the words out of her mouth are “no”? If he is, then he had better not be the hero of a romance novel unless he’s going to do a major about face on that attitude.
- Does he work in a field in which he is exposed to rape survivors (cop, psychologist, physician)?
- Has rape touch a member of his family? How did he deal with it?