Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Backstory is Story

by Deren Hansen

Rebecca Talley recently offered helpful advice on creating backstory for your characters in a pair of posts at ldspublisher's blog. (See part 1 and part 2.) While character questionnaires might be a good place to start, Rebecca encouraged us to dig deeper.

She suggested we consider:
  • Narratives about major events in your character's life.
  • Interviews with your character.
  • Lists of events that affected your characters.
  • A web or mind-map connecting your character with events, people, feelings, etc.
  • A collage of representative images with notes about their significance to your character.
As I thought about her suggestions, I had an epiphany: backstory is story.

Think about how you understand yourself. When you're getting acquainted with someone (and they with you), do you give them a resume that lists your accomplishments? Resumes may be useful in a job interview but that's not how we interact with people and, more importantly, that's not how we think about ourselves. Once we get past the small talk, we start trading stories about ourselves.

Ask yourself:
  • What stories do your characters tell about themselves when they meet people?
  • How do they tell those stories?
  • What stories do your characters choose not to tell about themselves when they meet people?
  • Are there situations in which they would tell the stories they usually avoid?
  • What stories do your characters tell themselves about themselves?
Action reveals character. The stories they choose to tell and the way in which they tell them speaks volumes. If you haven't nailed the voice, ask your character to introduce themselves to you. More generally, don't ask how your character would react, ask how they did react.

Deren blogs at The Laws of Making.


Daisy Carter said...

Great post. I love that you've asked what story a character would tell about themselves when they meet people. It's a brilliant exercise because it says SO much about the character. Thanks!

Julie Daines said...

i once heard someone say that we should know what secret thing our main character has hidden in the back of their closet.

Danielle Paige said...

Awesome post! I agree wholeheartedly!!! But I hate you for making me have to go back and revise more things. :)