Where Teens Write is closing its doors as a teen writing community, but the “how to write” blog posts will be up for another few weeks.
I’m happy to announce that you can post your stories and get feedback over at Teen Author’s Journal. Like WTW, it’s a smaller community where you can build relationships with others and hone your writing skills.
It’s been a great few years with all of you, but it’s time to close the doors to this community. If you did post stories here that you didn’t save anywhere else, and you’d like them, you may contact me using the contact page, and I’ll get you your story. Thank you for participating.
All the best,
Why should you develop your characters’ backstories?
Have you ever read the last few chapters of a book extra slowly because you weren’t yet ready to say goodbye to the characters?
Can you list favorite characters that you have fallen deeply and irrevocably in love with?
I’m willing to bet that if you’re a reader, you can. We all can. My list starts with Anne Shirley of the Anne of Green Gables series that I read and loved as a young girl. My most recent favorites are Arya Stark, Catelyn Stark, and Jon Snow in the Game of Thrones series.
In Stein on Writing, Sol Stein nails that feeling in the following quote:
“During the many years in which I was an editor and publisher, what did I hope for when I picked up a manuscript? I wanted to fall in love, to be swept up as quickly as possible into the life of a character so interesting that I couldn’t bear to shut the manuscript in a desk overnight. It went home with me so that I could continue reading it. We know what love is, we think of the other person at odd moments, we wonder where they are, what they are doing, we seem a bit crazy to the rest of the world. That’s exactly the feeling I have about characters I fall in love with in books” (49-50).
Me too!! I love it when someone captures exactly how I feel.
So…how do authors do it? How do they create characters with whom we fall in love?
They develop them from the inside out. They tell us why these characters act like they do, so we understand and relate to these characters.
They do it through a well-developed and delivered backstory.
What is backstory?
Backstory is the character’s history that gives them a reason for their attitudes and actions. It’s made up not only of where they grew up, their education etc. but of those key moments that define them.
Think about your own life. You can probably identify key moments that shifted your thinking, beliefs, or attitudes. For example, I can identity several instances as a child with my parents that infuriated me. I swore than that I would never do that when I was a mom, and I haven’t.
I can also think about one time during high school when I wasn’t a good friend because I was afraid of how I would be treated if I stood up for a friend. I’m still ashamed of my lack of taking action during that incident, and ever since, I’ve been a much better friend and true to my values.
These moments are my back story. If I was a character in a situation where it was an honor vs. social status situation, based on my back story, I’d choose the honorable route. As a fifteen year old, I went with the social status. Do you see the difference?
Our histories have shaped who we are which dictates both how we make decisions and how we perceive the world. That’s our backstory.
If an author handles backstory well, they achieve two goals:
1. We understand why characters act they way they do.
2. Ultimately, we empathize with the characters.
Let me give you an example. In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen sacrifices herself to save her little sister at The Reaping. Even though this is the event that launches the entire story, it doesn’t happen on the first page. Instead, Suzanne Collins spends the first pages giving the readers a glimpse into Katniss’ life.
We learn that her family is starving and poor. She regularly breaks the law to escape the District 12 boundaries to hunt and feed her loved ones. We learn that her father was killed, and her mother hasn’t recovered from losing her husband.
Right from the beginning of the story, we begin to feel for this girl because she is willing to take such risks to take care of the people she loves. It’s because of this that we understand her actions when she sacrifices herself at the Reaping.
And that is the entire point of a character’s back story.
In another example from Divergent, Four starts off as a somewhat mysterious character. Tris is drawn to him, but he seems somewhat cold and distant. His nickname is another mystery. It isn’t until we learn that his mother abandoned him as a baby and that his dad beat him do we begin to understand why he acts the way he does.
The backstory gives the characters reasons to act the way they do.
If you have an arrogant character, why are they arrogant? Is it a defense mechanism because at home they are told constantly that they’re worthless? Perhaps they’re trying to prove their own worth? Or is it because their parents have told them their entire lives how amazingly perfect they are?
Remember though, creating backstory is not about making readers “like” your character. That’s not the goal.
You want your readers to understand and empathize with your character. I’m sure you can think of characters that you don’t like but that you empathize with. Some examples would be Snape, who’s horribly mean but we also know that he was in love with Lilly Potter. He’s also an undercover agent for the good guys, so being mean is part of the “role” he’s playing.
Or think of Walter from Breaking Bad. He does some AWFUL stuff, like making meth and selling it to kids. BUT, he does it to help his family financially because he’s dying from cancer and his wife will lose everything if he dies.
Backstory can also explain odd behavior quirks. For example, in Twilight, Belle is always falling down and calling herself a klutz. It’s an odd character quirk that Stephanie Meyer never explains.
Why is this character so completely physically inept, yet when she’s being chased she runs just fine? Had Meyer explained that Belle started life in leg braces because of some medical issue or that she’d gotten teased relentlessly for falling down during a race in the fourth grade, so now she’s always afraid of falling which makes her trip and fall, I might have understood and empathized with this character trait. Since Meyer never explained it, Belle’s klutziness become completely annoying.
Once you figure out your character basics, the first next step is to go deeper and build a backstory to let us into your character. Help us to fall in love with them.
You can do this in a few ways:
1) Check out the Character Creation Workshop. This course runs several times a year on WTW and walks you through creating a character. The course includes ten video lessons and transcripts, PDF worksheets, a private forum group, and “live” office hour sessions for you to ask questions and get feedback.
2) If you’re not ready for the whole course, complete the following exercise to help develop your character’s back story.