Backstory: The Art of Listening to Characters

Generating backstory feels like that proverbial chicken-or-egg question. And bearing that in mind, am I the chicken or the egg? I honestly don’t know.

I looked for some conversations I had on paper with a few of my characters years ago. Sadly, they are long gone. They were structured like an interview where I asked the questions and they told me all about themselves. It’s like an improv exercise for writers. But the thing is I know what’s going to happen to them next–well most things–and they tell me everything that has taken place before page one. My characters always know what I know, meaning their fate, however wonderful or challenging. I know they know these things. They also know I know they know these things. And even with all that knowing, they don’t try to mess up what goes into page one and beyond. They help me churn out a great story, steering us away from bad ideas/plot checkpoints, and guiding us along where the heart of the story really lies. It’s teamwork with imaginary people that exist only in thought.

Anyway, enough with forward matter. Let’s get down to backstory.

Each character I create is born with a purpose in mind, and a piece of me allocated to them. It’s kind of like divvying up my id, ego and superego, then giving them a life of their own. As I’m writing this blog, I’m realizing how personal character creation is. It’s all about me. I’ve tried to create characters fashioned after other people but this has yet to work for me. Sure I can incorporate looks and a personality quirk or two, and amusing events. For example, my great-grandmother once said to me, “Did you expect it to be cold?” I earned this quip after taking a bite of food and remarking with great surprise how hot it was. I have so many random memories, all of which influence my writing, and many of which will crop up in my writing. I’m a perpetual observer and listener, even though I may not listen in the way you intend me to. Sorry. Personality quirk. To put it simply but perhaps not clearly: my attention is layered.

So, bearing all that in mind, my characters do keep their secrets from me. My main antagonist from the trilogy I’m currently working on was the hardest to wrestle answers from. In fact, it took writing two books to figure out the core of his personal story. At one point years ago, I honestly sat down with him and tried to pry some answers out of him. Didn’t go over well. Just got a bunch of terse replies. This year I finally know a lot more, yet there’s still much to learn while I draft Determination. But that’s okay, that’s safe for the first two books. It’s kind of funny how I learned about him. Four other characters spilled the beans on him.

It’s a scary and dicey thing to write with characters you don’t know a ton about. I got lucky with Anticipation. I was able to keep going back and fix things as I learned more about my characters. I advise against my approach, to be honest. The deeper and richer the lore preceding page one, the deeper and richer the story the characters. Yes, I go back and learn the backstory, but it would have made my writing life easier to gather all that information.

Then again, maybe I’d be overloaded with information with no clue as to what the useful-to-useless information ratio is. As I draft, I realize what I need to go back and work out, what questions need answering. Like I said before, all my characters start around one core idea that comes from me. Take Roxie, for example. She’s formed from a wish, actually, a wish to be someone, some that people care about, someone important, someone that can make a difference in the world. Ironically, Roxie’s never spent energy wishing for these things. That’s something I learned by getting to know her.

This is my first ever sketch with a digital drawing program. It’s primitive, yes. I could have added shading to it but, after eight hours of giving myself a neck and headache learning how to create those basics, that was enough. Trust me, it’s not as simple as it looks when you have no clue what you’re doing.


About Angela Macala-Guajardo

Author, teacher, soon-to-be full time writer for two companies. Also a lover life in the Arizona desert, puppy butt wiggles, and kitties purring away on my shoulder.
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