The Story Behind Your Character: Writing a Believable Back-story

What makes you you?

It’s not your physical appearance. Undoubtedly, you look like someone, whether you inherited your parents’ high cheekbones or you find you find your long lost doppelganger on the bus. So it’s just as silly to describe your characters as “blonde and beautiful” as it would be to describe yourself as such when someone asks you to define yourself.

What really defines you and shapes your personality is the sum of all the cause and effect situations in your life, your personal history, your back-story.

This isn’t to say you need to spend the first 100 pages of your novel explaining your character’s life up to that point. Quite the opposite. The back-story, when a character is done right, should become apparent through their speech, actions, and mannerisms. It’s almost like a subplot told only through subtlety.

Let’s proceed through a back-story. The italics will indicate the past event, which will be followed by normal print, describing how it effects the character.

Sofia Cino was born in New Jersey, the third generation of an Italian family to be born in America.
She speaks quickly, and emphasizes certain verbs with her hands.

Her family is very close. She knows all her first and second cousins, and she has been to all of their weddings.
She has a strong sense of loyalty, especially toward her family. To her, her best friends are part of the family, too, and she would do anything for them.

Her family is also boisterous, but interesting.
She has learned to be more of a listener than a talker.

In school, Sofia was so quiet, no one bothered to pick on her.
She assumes the best of people, and is kind to them in return, because it’s all she knows.

Due to her aforementioned loyalty, the few friends she makes, she keeps, and they have a strong bond.

Though this is a simplified back-story, you have gotten to know the character. The reasons for her actions would immediately be hinted at once the reader was brought into her world, especially to see how she behaves around her family and friends in contrast with how she behaves at school.

There are also more inconsequential things that make up a back-story.

An escalator ripped her brother’s jacket.
She’d rather take the stairs.

Her mother’s always home before five.
She never learned to cook.

Her parent’s won’t let her travel off the East Coast.
She reads books for escapism.

It’s little tidbits like that which make a character and give them realistic depth. Back-story can also act as a motivator for specific goals of your character, whether short-term or immediate.

For example, the previously described character might strive to become a doctor and at the same time, want to get married, because she wants a big, loving family like her parents had and she also wants to support them (as well as her parents in their old age).

In this way, all the actions and thoughts of your characters should be influenced by their past. They can even try to break away from that past and change, but it should all have a reason, an origin.

Cliché Back-stories to Avoid
(unless there’s a damn good reason for them and you’re not taking the easy way out.)

-The parents are dead
Wouldn’t be more interesting if your character still had to deal with them? This doesn’t count if the parents died of natural causes.

-Likewise, the character doesn’t know who one or both of his parents are.
Parents bring great conflict to a story. Goodness, don’t get rid of them! Conflict outweighs angst any day.

-reasonless amnesia
This is the antithesis of a good back-story, especially if your character turns out to be royalty. Bad.

-a perfect life up until the beginning of the story

-excess abuse to the point of ridiculousness
A little goes a long way. At a certain point, most people with vision can see if another is being abused and will at least contact the proper authorities.

-They’re the last of something.
Do Clark Kent or Goku ring any bells? It’s not original.

-Or anything else that provides excessive angst to the story. Angst is like salt. Too much and you’ll ruin your story.

Think about your characters’ back-stories and the repercussions they’ll have on your story, or better yet, your characters’ lives. Good back-stories are important, because without them, its nearly impossible to create a good character.