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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Once Upon a Backstory

                                         ©Stina Lindenblatt

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?
Each of these scenarios will affect how the guy will respond to the female and this, in turn, will shape how the story unfolds (which is why I prefer to do characterizations before I outline).

In a future post, I’ll discuss how much and when to include backstory in your novel. Until then, spend the time getting to know your characters and their personal histories. It will be time well spent.

Stina Lindenblatt writes romantic suspense and young adults novels. In her spare time, she’s a photographer and blogging addict, and can be found hanging out on her blog, Seeing Creative.


ClothDragon said...

I think D is more common with younger victims or people whose childhood led them to believe they didn't have much value to begin with. Almost all childhood molestation victims I've met go through D.

Steena Holmes said...

You've made good points. I like that you've brought out the fact that your characters will never react the same and not as you expect either. One might deal like A but the other might deal like D. You can't assume that those who are undervalued or come from a poorer situation will go by D either.
Having that backstory for each character is a fantastic idea BTW. You get to know your characters just a 'little bit more' than you once thought.

Josh Hoyt said...

This is a great post on understanding our characters. It is so important to really get to know our characters and how they react in certain situations. I use a lot of my schooling (Psychology) to better understand my characters and to make them real.

Tim said...

Just a few days ago I was working on a chapter discussing a character's medical condition and I was compelled to write a scene in which she visits the doctor years earlier to receive the news. I could feel her tension, see the examining room--everything. Even though it won't make the book, I'm writing it so I have a sense of how she felt.

lbdiamond said...

Great post, Stina. Your background plays a huge influence on how you perceive things...the same should go for the characters we create.