Ernest Hemingway is famously quoted as saying “people are like icebergs: only 10% is visible; 90% lies under the water”. It is essential that you know the most important and darkest aspects of your characters before you write them.
Backstory is defined as everything that shapes your characters up to the point your story begins. It is more than where they went to school or their relationships with their parents. It defines the moral, intellectual and emotional landscape of your characters and shapes their morality, spirituality and entire way of life.
Character backstory shapes their current actions rather than control them. It helps us understand why they behave in a particular way; their motivation.
Characters don’t respond the same way in every given situation. Human behaviour isn’t that simple. This isn’t a license for the writer to allow outlandish and incongruent decisions to made by their characters… unless the context allows it.
If an issue has been simmering for some time and a character explodes the audience will relate to their behavior because it’s tied to their backstory.
It helps characters make choices to create a believable plot. Consider the following scenario: a person gets fired from their job. What would they do if they were nearing retirement? Fresh out of college? Fresh out of prison? Who would accept the situation and immediately start looking for another job? Who would worry about their employability? Who would mouth off at their supervisor? What if the main character had a history of substance abuse or mental health issues?
Backstory also helps shape how characters react to situations. Consider the following scenario: a death of a family member is announced. The reactions could include apathy, indifference, shock, sadness and loss. Knowing the backstory of your characters helps the writer create an appropriate reaction in the story.
It also defines the inter-personal relationships of the characters in your story. The key formative relationships with all characters are with their families and later their school teachers and friends.
Why do some people engage in attention seeking negative or destructive behavior? Why do others only see the positive side of things?
This is time well spent in the planning stages of your story as it will help you hone your characters and make them more interesting.
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