Tracy S. Morris

Quirky Mysteries, Screwball Fantasy and Sassy History

Monday Musing – Do Your Characters Have a History?

Written By: Tracy - Mar• 21•11

Have you ever looked at the documentaries for digitally animated movies? Some of those documentaries show that the digital characters have a sort of a skeleton under their digital frames, which is known as a wire frame.

Just like the characters in a move, written characters need their own skeleton.

When I started writing short stories, my characters were like paper dolls. Not in that cut-out-with-scissors, has-an-outfit-for-every-occasion kind of way. They were more like all-purpose stock characters. If I needed a hero who was a spy, chances are that he had the same basic personality as the captain of the guards from my last short story, only slightly shorter and skinnier.

In other words, these characters had a history that began at the start of my stories. As my writing evolved, I started inventing histories for my characters that made them unique. The spy fell into his job because he came from a farm and watched mercenaries burn the crops and gang-press his older brother into their service. Now he looks at his job as a sacred duty to prevent war and protect the border farmsteads.

The captain of the guards has scars over the backs of his sword hand from when he was a boy learning swordwork for the first time. His old master made him choose a sword with no hand guard so that he would improve his tip control and guard work. Now he takes it as a source of pride that no sword will make it past his blade.

My skill as a writer improved again when I learned to develop this information, but keep it out of the story.  Once that happened, a reader could sense that there was more to a character than just what was on the surface. The character had become three dimensional.

Some quick ideas for backstory:

  • Where was your character from? Does he/she have different characteristics because of this? An accent? Different Mannerisms?
  • Does he have scars? Where did he get them? In battle? Ritual disfiguration? Is it an embarrassing story he/she wouldn’t want others to know?
  • How do others react around him/Her? If he walks into a room, do mothers pull their children out of the room? Why?
  • Does he/she carry a worry stone?
  • What are her/his annoying habits or nervous tics? Where did they pick them up?

The reader may not find out this backstory, but there is a feel that there is something there that makes that particular character react the way that they do. If the reasons for the character’s flaws can come up in the plot, it will make the plot (and the characters) more complex.  Your villain has a mother that he sends flowers to every day. Or your hero is so absorbed in saving the planet that he stomps on a little kid’s sand castle while doing battle with the villain.

If you’ve never thought about creating a backstory for your characters, try role playing games like D&D. Some of the rules that govern character creation can help you get a feel for the process. (For example, a character who has a lot of strength may be lacking in the brains department. A character with lots of charisma may not be as strong as the bruiser. Some older versions would allow you to have higher statistics if you took on a couple of negative traits like stammering or body odor.

If you have some friends who are gamers, try playing a character with some of those negative traits. You may be surprised at how much fun you will have with a character who isn’t perfect, or pat.

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