Backstory: Avoiding Flat Characters


Paper Dolls with Amy Butler clothes
Photo by AForestFrolic (click pic for link)

In an effort to think positively, I have decided to start on the second romance in the Wanderlust series.  Initially, I had moved on to a different project because I have a fear of starting a sequel before Book one sells.  But in this case, the books are meant to be free-standing stories if necessary--i.e. a character is pulled from book one but it's a different band member's story.  (For those of you who have beta read for me, this would be Sean's story.)


Plus, the characters have been poking me in the ribs demanding I let them have their own story.  So I have started doing my haphazard outlining for book two and have the concepts sketched out for books three and four.  See, I told you, I'm in positive thinking mode.  There better be something to that whole "Secret" thing Oprah's always talking about.  :)

So as I get my thoughts together on the book, I realized that one of the most important components for me is backstory.  If I don't know the character's backstory, then I have trouble starting the book.  There are writers out there that say you shouldn't worry about backstory, just focus on what is going on with the character's right now, but I don't agree.  Yes, we should not bog the reader down with all aspects of the character's history.  However, I as the writer need to know even if it never makes it in the book.  This goes hand and hand with motivation for me.  Why does the character act this way?  Because of A, B, C.  If I don't know this then I'm just writing a paper doll--a flat caricature with no shadows or depth.

So along with plotting and such, I come up with the big events in the character's history.  Think of this like Dr. Phil's "defining moments" technique.  He often asks his guests to list the five or ten defining moments in their lives--things that happened that changed everything.  Now hopefully your story is starting one of these moments, but you also need to know the ones from their past.  And they don't all need to be smack-you-upside-the-head incidents.

Maybe when you character starred in a play at school, his parents decided to go to his brother's football game instead--showing him who they favored.  Maybe that has made him fiercely competitive.

Or take inspiration from your own history.  I hate when people are late--loathe it.  Why?  Because when my dad used to pick me up for my every other weekend visit he was notoriously late--sometimes half an hour, sometimes much longer.  Sitting on that front step waiting for him made me feel like whatever was keeping him from picking me up on time was more important than me.

It is especially vital to know the history when your character has some less than admirable qualities or takes some undesirable action.  For instance, my character is in a band and has been a bit of womanizer in the past.  So I need to motivate that properly to let the reader eventually forgive him for these past actions and be open to seeing him as the hero.

Now the key to all of this is to know your character inside and out, but to be able to convey that to your reader without telling them all that background.  So, tomorrow I am going to go through some techniques of how to work in your backstory without bogging down your story.

So what is your method?  Do you start writing and develop backstory as you go along or do you need to know the history before getting started?  Or, do you believe that backstory isn't that important and that you should only worry about the here and now of the character?


**Today's Theme Song**
"My Paper Heart" - All-American Rejects
(player in sidebar if you'd like a listen)