Monday, March 24, 2014

Creating Your Character’s Backstory

Many writers like to do a character profile before they write the story. You can also create one as you go along. It’s handy to keep track of small details like hair and eye color, relationship to other characters, etc. But it can also help establish a backstory—the character(s) personality, motivation, quirks, philosophies, and why he/she might act a certain way when confronted with an obstacle.


Along with the name, age, and birthplace, here are some characteristics you might want to think about:

· Physical description (any scars, a limp, etc?)
· Family background: (financial & social status, get along w/parents etc.?)
· Occupation:
· Hobbies:
· Marital Status/children/pets?
· Moral standards:
· Extrovert or introvert?
· Taste in music, books, food:
· Character traits (strongest and weakest):
· Philosophy of life:

And digging a little deeper to help with your plotline:

· What does he/she care about so much he/she would risk everything for?
· Obsessions?
· Fears?
· Character flaw:
· Present Problem:
· How will it get worse? (obstacles/antagonist)
· How will character solve it?
· Has a secret?
· An object associated with? (i.e. luck rabbit’s foot, smokes a smelly cigar, likes white roses, etc.

Do you create a character profile or do you let him/her develop as you write? What characteristics do you like to establish when developing your character?

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in North-central Arizona where she blogs, teaches writing, and edits. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreamsis based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, won the national WILLA Award. The next book in the series, Dare to Dream, will be published in May 2014. Heidi has a degree in journalism and a certificate in fiction writing.

23 comments :

  1. Thanks for this, Heidi. I always do a character sketch for those who populate my stories. I add 'politics' and 'religion' to the list. And I start off with a picture, usually taken from the web, since I'm quite visual in terms of creativity. I can't imagine starting a story without first knowing my characters as well as possible, since they drive my fiction.

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  2. Excellent post, Heidi! For me, creating detailed character sketches of my main characters and somewhat less precise ones for secondary and minor characters precedes committing the first words to chapter one. This is how I develop a connection with my characters and includes such diverse information as favorite foods and pet peeves, in addition to the items you mentioned. I agree 100% with Stuart that intimate knowledge of my characters, their habits, their quirks, etc., is germane to their relevance in the story — and to its success.

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  3. Mine develop as I write; I'm lazy and if that lucky rabbit's foot won't end up in the book, I don't want to spend time giving it to him. I'd get antsy to start writing if I waited until I fleshed out characters, so plunge into the writing, then fill in as needed. Probably takes the same amount of time, but I feel like I'm being more productive getting words onto the page instead of onto a character sheet.

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    1. I'm a little like you, Terry, in that regard. Sometimes I'll fill in the character sketch after I've written much of the story--just to remind myself to be consistent.

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  4. I created Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict and SBB: Build A Cast Workbook around developing characters based on personality types. That is my personal method for bringing them to life. In SBBII, I take the character from childhood to retirement and explore ways to bend and shape them and how they interact and conflict with each other. You can certainly add in as you go along, but I prefer to know who I'm dealing with from the beginning and it keeps the character consistent throughout.

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  5. I'm with Terry. I create mine as I write. I have a general idea of my main characters, but they tell me who they are as the story develops. Maybe that's because I don't outline. I always thought if I did, I'd rob the book of spontaneity. Most of the time they come out more interesting than I could have perceived. So far, so good.

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  6. I usually start out with some idea of the characters, based on the story I want to tell (or I get a character notion and build a story around that), but I usually fill in the backstory as I go. I tend to infodump, so I'm learning to cull that and stick it in a profile to draw details from instead. ~blush~ My favorite thing is to ask a character ten questions I know or can quickly come up with the answers to, then ten questions I don't know the answers to. By the time I've finished with free-writing those second ten answers, I know more about the characters than I wanted to, and they have distinct voices for me. :)

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    1. Marian, I like the idea of asking the ten questions, especially those you don't know the answer to. Do you have a couple of examples you could share? That could even make a good blog post here. I bet some other writers would be interested in the technique.

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    2. Excellent article. Thank you

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    3. Yes, Marian, share the 10 questions--maybe a future blog post?

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  7. Terry probably hit the magic word: lazy ... buuuttttt ... in the interest of a good justification, while I may have a rough idea about who a character is before starting a story, I really get to know him/her as the story develops ... sort of like any relationship ... we get to know each other as we spend time together. Hey, maybe we're not so lazy, eh Terry?

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    1. You've got it, Chris. We're not lazy. Just make efficient use of our time!

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  8. Like several other folks have said, I usually start with a notion of the character, then let it all come to life along with the story. I do try to make the characters fresh and different, tho. For instance in the Seasons Mystery Series the two female leads come from distinct backgrounds, but I sort of flipped the expected. The black cop comes from middle class and the white cop comes from poor hillbilly background in TN. I think flipping expectation can be a good thing.

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  9. I usually ask my characters 2 questions: What is it you want? And what are you prepared to do to get it? It seems to sum up their priorities and moral stance.

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  10. I'm actually finishing up a novella/prequel to get familiar with my characters. I even know their astrological symbols. The Chinese years they were born in. Their blood types. Shoes sizes. More importabtly, my question to the H. and h. - what is your shared mission? In real life and fiction, that precedent makes for a powerful partnership and story.

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  11. I need pictures too. I have a Pinterest board for Story Characters. Each of my characters has a photo album.

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    1. Photos are great. The album is a good idea!

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    2. deborah turner harrisMarch 26, 2014 at 3:55 AM

      Good stuff! With your permission, could I hand on this suggestion to some of my novice writers who are struggling to make their characters real?

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  12. I can't work with images for some reason, but I do ask my character questions culled from Grazia magazine, which they regularly ask a celebrity or film star, and are apparently the only questions you ever need to ask to know someone. (Depends how honest their answers are though!)

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    1. Now that's an interesting idea! What are the questions? I'm really curious now.

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  13. I build the character sketch as I go along. I make notes of things I need to remember, like appearance, family names, etc. But I let the character evolve as the story changes.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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