So tomorrow is Remembrance Day. While it’s supposed to be a day that we remember the sacrifices made by veterans, and specifically the end of WWI, I find it’s also a good day to just remember the past in general. And because it’s November and National Novel Writing Month, I’m going to talk a little bit about creating back stories for our characters. (Plus I’ll have an excerpt from my novel for you at the end of this post)
A character’s back story can be as elaborate or simple as you want. Maybe there just hasn’t been that much of interest that has happened to them in their life time. Maybe every day is exactly the same until the unexpected event that starts off your story. Or maybe their life is so full of random awesomeness that they no longer see it as such. The level of detail you think up/write out for your character’s history is entirely up to you and what you need.
As a general rule of thumb, I only make note of three types of events in a character’s history.
- Events that are interesting, memorable, or somehow important to the character. (e.g., the time that his/her distant father/father-figure took them to the fair; his/her first kiss/love/etc.)
- Events that shaped how the character interacts or views the world. (e.g., the second time they caught their significant other cheating on them; the time they watched the local holy person murder a hobo)
- Events that specifically impact the story, but occurred before the story starts. (e.g., the deal his/her great-grandparent made with a fairy/demon/etc; the seemingly unimportant stone they picked up and took home one day as a youth)
Each of the above are important to know about for a couple of reasons. It helps you determine what’s important to a character, why a character thinks or acts a certain way, and how that character fits into the story. It also helps you determine how other characters might react and interact with them.
For example, if your MMC (male main character) had two different girlfriends cheat on him, he is probably going to be distrustful of getting into another relationship. He might even hold a grudge against all women, or perhaps just women who look or act a certain way. Knowing about this, the FMC (female main character) might go out of her way to prove that not all women are like that. Maybe she is extra careful in the way she speaks to him, treating him like he’s fragile and might break if she makes any sudden moves/loud noises. Or perhaps she is unaware of his history and only sees how rude he is to her (regardless of whether she’s pursuing a relationship or not). This might make her hate, distrust, or dislike the MMC.
It’s also important to be aware that if the character has some sort of traumatic event in their history, they aren’t going to be perfectly “normal” afterwards. From personal experience, I’ve been in four car accidents, three of which resulted in the car being totalled. None of them were my fault (one was a weather issue). Despite not really liking the vehicle, after my last crash I bought an SUV so that I wouldn’t ever be the “little guy” on the road again. (I love small, sporty, standards) Even with the SUV, I’m nervous and a little jumpy whenever I pass by the spots where the accidents occurred, or when I’m in a similar spot/situation. But on the flip side, I’m much less worried about getting into another accident in general. I mean, I’ve been through four already. The accident itself isn’t that scary anymore. Similarly, even though none of the accidents have been my fault, my siblings refuse to drive with me because I’m a “bad driver”. This causes tensions (especially considering one of my sibs has been in more accidents than I have, and is responsible for causing most of them).
Yet getting in an accident (or accidents) that don’t leave you permanently injured is fairly small on the scale of traumatic events. But you can see how that history has impacted my life, and will probably continue to impact it for years to come. If I ever get into another accident, the emotional/psychological results are probably going to be much more severe than if someone who has never been in one were to be in the exact same accident. That’s not a guarantee, just what I’d expect if I were to make a character based on my experiences and have them involved in another wreck. (How would things be different if the next accident was my/my imaginary character’s fault? What about if there was an actual serious injury this time? What if one of the sibs was in the car when it happened? What if someone else was driving? etc., etc.)
Researching psychological disorders like PTSD can be helpful, but most events (traumatic or not) will not result in the character developing actual PTSD. They might have some of the symptoms, or they might have symptoms of other disorders. Depression, anxiety, insomnia, and similar disorders are fairly common responses to a variety of events (from the death of a loved one, to major illness/injury, to being attacked). Reading up on them, how they’re diagnosed, what the symptoms actually are (not just what you think they are), and how they’re treated can be helpful. And remember, just because I’m sad and having problems sleeping following the death of my mother/father/sister/brother/whomever doesn’t mean that I have “Depression”. I am depressed, yes, but I don’t have a psychological disorder. A lot of people get that confused. (As a general rule, it’s not “Depression” unless it has been going on for months without improvement past an “acceptable” time frame from the precipitating event)
But how can you come up with a back story if you aren’t really sure where to start? Well, if I’m stumped I like to refer to an old D&D handbook. The 3.0 Hero Builder’s Guide. It even has a nifty little section to randomly generate a character’s history. Even giving an abbreviated version of it is huge (8 pages in MS Word)! If you have a friend or some other access to the Hero Builder’s Guide, I’d suggest you check it out. Otherwise, I’m going to ask my hubby to build me a random generator that I can share with you guys based upon what was in that book (plus extras, because I love you all 😛 )
To give you an idea of what sort of information you might want to think up, I’ll give you the categories and quick descriptions.
- Home Community -not only the number of people that lived nearby, but also where they lived.
- Family -status, wealth, private/public ethics, religiousness, and other details.
- Ancestors -anyone worth noting in your character’s family history?
- Major Life Events (Thus Far) -Things that would be memorable and shape a character.
- Relationships -how many living relatives, how many friends, enemies, etc.
Remember, you might not need all that information. But if you have it, you might find that it adds a little something extra to the story.
And speaking of stories… here is today’s excerpt (sorry I forgot one last time):
The sun cresting over the horizon woke her from her sleep. For a moment she was disorientated as to where she was, but as Lieutenant Everett paced past her along the same arc that Gabriel had when he took the first watch it all came crashing back. Sitting up, she rubbed at her eyes and groaned. An obvious perk to being a princess was not having to sleep on the ground, or so she would have thought. The night before she hadn’t noticed the rocks or bumps in the ground, but now she felt every little pebble as she shifted.
“Morning, princess,” the lieutenant smiled at her, pausing in his pacing. “I’d say you brighten the day, but… maybe you should have brought a maid or two to keep that mane of yours under control.”
“What?” Kaitlyn gasped, a hand flying to the remains of her braid. She hadn’t given it any thought the night before, but now much of her hair had worked its way loose. Tendrils curled around her face, and her hair was just generally frizzy.
He laughed a little, “Do you need me to go grab your bag? You’re up a little early, so you can probably make yourself presentable before anyone else sees you.”
“Ugh, yes, please,” she groaned, plopping her face into her hands.
He gave the back of her head a quick pat before jogging over to where everyone’s bags had been unloaded. While he was sorting through the bags she untied the cord that Briella and Danielle had wrapped around the end of the braid and began working her fingers through her hair. When the lieutenant returned with her bag in hand he laughed a little, “I think you’re making it worse, your highness.”
“Shut up,” she muttered, snatching the bag out of his hands. He resumed his pacing with a chuckle as she opened the bag and began shoving things around. Briella and Danielle had folded and stacked everything so neatly, but Kaitlyn’s rummaging quickly put the bag’s contents into disarray. After a minute she began to mutter to herself, and after two she dumped the entire bag over her lap.
If you’re liking what you’re reading in the excerpts, or are interested in reading the whole story as I write it, you can read it over on Tablo. I update as I complete chapters. Here’s the link. If you like it, please favourite and/or follow. There’s a bit of a contest for the NaNo novels that can attract the biggest following (top 5 get referred on to an actual publishing house).