Characters with a Past

Characters with a bumpy past or emotional baggage are more complex, interesting and realistic. Readers will pull for them more (if you also make them empathetic). Every real person has had negative things happen in their past. Readers understand and connect to this. We are a product of our past, and in some cases the past has greatly affected us and how we deal with people or situations. The past often motivates us in the present. The important events of a character’s past, the ones that shaped them most, are called backstory events. If you can give your character one or two big backstory events that are still affecting him or her today, you are one step closer to creating a complex, believable, real character.

The backstory events I’m talking about are generally bad, negative or painful things that happened to the character in the past. It could’ve happened last month, last year or when he was five. It could’ve lasted five minutes or ten years. A bad thing could be a traumatic event or something that caused them emotional pain. Someone tried to kill him. His brother was murdered. She was raped. A curse was placed on him. She was kidnapped. He was abused as a child. She was left orphaned and penniless, then raised in a string of foster homes. He was in a car accident that left him with a major injury and the person riding with him was killed. Her father gambled away the fortune. It could be almost anything that would negatively affect your character for a long time, and this event still haunts him. He is not yet healed from this life-changing event. This is his emotional baggage. This is when you bring memories and repercussions from the past event into the current story. She doesn’t trust men (or the hero) because she was raped. She wants a family more than anything because she never had one. He grew up in poverty and this is what drives him to be the wealthiest business owner in town.

The character’s GMC often comes from their past, especially their motivations. Motivation is the “why?” Why does the hero work so hard to be the best cop he can be? Because his father was killed in the line of duty fifteen years ago? Because the hero’s little sister was killed by a drug dealer ten years ago? Why does the heroine not trust men? Because she saw how her father abused and cheated on her mother? Because all the men close to her in the past treated her like dirt? These are the deep issues that trouble your characters. And the problems they have to work through usually come from seeds planted in the past.
Backstory events don’t have to be traumatic and extremely painful, especially if your book is lighter, like a comedy. Or if your story is very short. (You may not have time or space to work through traumatic events.) You could use lighter-weight backstory events. Did he quit high school and now he’s determined to be incredibly successful anyway? Did the other kids in school tease her about her braces, her excessive height, or her hair? Is he/she divorced? Were her parents extremely strict? Too lenient? The point is that any story and any character can benefit from backstory events that still affect him/ her now in some way, even in minor ways. This doesn’t mean you have to have a backstory event or that you need one, but if you do it’s a plus. And the darker and more dramatic your story, the more your characters will benefit from backstory events.
Backstory events, once revealed, will show the reader why the character believes a certain thing about others or about himself. Why he acts as he does. How he expects others to behave. Backstory events bring out a character’s personality, values, and attitudes about specific things.

In my recent release, Laird of Darkness, the hero, Duncan, has two types of negative backstory events. One is that because he is half Fae and has no magical weapon of protection, monsters or demons from Otherworld torture him physically if he goes to sleep at night. This has happened to him since he was a child, so naturally he tries to stay awake at night. Another backstory event is that his father abused him. Using his Fae powers he was able to escape most of this abuse but it was always clear his father never loved him. Another important backstory event happened when Duncan was seventeen. His father died, and Duncan became chief of his clan. Enemy clans in the area thought he would be weak because he was so young, and they invaded. With the help of his Fae powers, Duncan led his clan to victory. The violence and paranormal occurrences during this event led to Duncan’s infamous and legendary reputation as the Laird of Darkness.
This month I’m teaching my workshop, Instinctive Characterization. In it I cover backstory event and lots of other elements and methods writers can use when developing characters. You can still register if you want. Just click here to learn more.


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