The problem of Back Stories

The problem of Back Stories - student project

It's getting late and I should shuffle off to bed, the cat is telling me he is ready for beddie-bye time, but I've just put another couple of ounces of Scotch in my glass (from the "family distillery" no less (us Scots know our history), and so it comes to me that when trying to develop characters, typing up a sort of "telling" back story may be of great value. So here we are, looking at other teachers who have their ideas of character development through what is a basic inventory method of the character. We list physical features, we try to provide some personality features (some use the Big Five while others use the Myers-Briggs - not as scientific as the Big Five but far more useful in fantasy writing), and the usual quirks that help us to define our characters (what is in his pockets, does she hum the latest tunes, how does he like his toast, what does she have for lunch, etc). but it occurs to me that while filling out the forms to identify a character it might be a good idea to construct a back story for each of your main characters. 

 

Now let us say that I have a character who I will define as Swiss, raised in a German Speaking Canton where there is a significant French speaking population and the village in which he is raised has some French speaking citizens. Notice that I have not said a word about his appearance, but if you must, he is blond, say six feet tall, has an athletic physique because he likes to hike and mountain climb, etc., well we are on our way to giving him a presence. Maybe his mother was of French decent and his father Swiss, we see a cross cultural back story starting to form. Holidays spent in France somewhere, but where? Ah, that adds to our character development. So we might see a divided loyalty between two cultures, two countries.

 

Next, we send him to university to study in the European style. The Swiss university has the more classical form or learning, more emphasis on the old liberal arts studies and then the technical formats. This is not the way we do it in the US. And then he advances towards a masters degree in the area he desires. Remember that one is not considered an engineer without a masters degree in Europe. But what if his area of expertise is more the social science? Ah, then what is is expected to learn/believe is more formal, more the same proforma education that all young men and women are expected to learn and regurgitate. So perhaps he rebels a bit from the norm, maybe he questions those basic assumptions he is suppose to swallow. do you see how we add to the back story? This type of backstory is far more biographical in nature, perhaps far too much to throw into a novel and effeminately a short story, but you get the picture. We are creating a human being who has agency in the world.

 

Once we have created these characters, given them their "life" in the world, we can start to write the plot, the story where they will act out their role and we can reveal their back stories bit by bit as needed to propel the story forward. So stay tuned, I have a project that calls for a number of characters over the course of several volumes (sort of like the Lord of the Rings trilogy) and I will be giving them the expanded back story they need to justify their existence.

 

Back to childhood, for this is where our character, like all characters, first learns the social skills for dealing with the world. A childhood rooted in a small village will be different from one that is rooted in a large city. It is not that village life is more isolated, far from being true, but that each venue has its different focal points. So if my character comes from a village he will be less likely to feel at ease in the larger city. The sights and sounds of the city  will be more discomforting to him, produce a constant longing for the countryside. Pets such as a cat or dog will have more importance for they represent both a different sort of companionship and a sense of freedom. So let me give him a dog. He will remember wandering the village and the outskirts with not only his friends but with his dog. He will watch his pet grow from puppy to old age and then death. A part of a man's character is expressed by the manner in which he treats his dog. 

 

Now let me place him in a city where he will work. Since he has a university degree we know he will not be doing manual work. He may have spent his teenage years working on an uncle's farm each summer, a good introduction to manual labor of some kind, and gain an appreciation for hard work. Now he can identify with those individuals he will view in the city as laborers, craftsmen, and such. His thinking about them will help to ground his life in the city. If his university training is such that he will earn his pay through an intellectual endeavor that link to the common laborer will help to keep a touch of humility. Where he will lodge in the city also helps to explain his character and give impetus to the story. Where a man works and where he lives helps to define him to the rest of the world. It also helps to define those individuals he is likely to meet. A clerk who lives in a low rent flat is unlikely to socialize with lawyers and bankers. What our character does for employment and where he lives helps to define the story he will show the reader.

 

Finally, a few words about incidents in his life. We, as human beings, are often defined by incidents in our lives. Accidents are one way to show how our character reacts to adversity. Did he suffer an accident at the hands of another or cause someone to suffer from his carelessness. Childhood fights give him either a sense of courage or a sense of fear of others. First loves are another measure of our character's sense of romance or lack thereof. Backstory is the history of our character and the prelude of his showing his story to the reader. 

 

A final word on backstory. Avoid the temptation to write a Downton Abbey like story, one that is, after a time, little more that a continuing soap opera. Few individuals ever live lives of constant drama and sorrow. Characters, like stories, need a point, a reason or moral to show.