It can be hard to pinpoint the most difficult piece of writing. From descriptions, to editing, to world-building, to dialogue, to good prose in general, everyone has their own struggles and different pieces of writing they need to improve on. I certainly have quite a few!
However, I think it’s safe for me to say that one particularly challenging thing that all writers must come to terms with eventually, is crafting authentic, strong characters.
When writing, you’re mimicking a little piece of the real world. You’re capturing reality in a fictional story that will be read by humans just as complex, interesting, and real as you. And one of the best ways to leave a true impact upon that reader is by giving them a good story, with good vessels to carry the message you wish to impart. And who or what are those vessels? That’s right. The characters in your story!
I’m not an expert on characters by any means, but I wanted to share one very important tip to writing an authentic character, that I think a lot of people overlook.
What is that one thing? It’s creating a realistic and impactful backstory!
But Caleb, why is background so important? Well, let me elaborate a little bit. What are some of the most important pieces a character needs to be sympathetic and memorable? A goal and a dream. Flaws. A strong worldview. A fear or trauma that has shaped them into the person they are. And when are all of those things formed? What event gives them all of those things? That’s right! In the past. In the character’s backstory!
You can’t start off your story with a blank slate character and show the reader every single thing that shapes them. Your character should be already formed, with strong beliefs and a trauma from the past that makes their choices realistic. That doesn’t mean they can’t learn things throughout the actual story, or that their worldview can’t change, but something, even something simple, must be established beforehand.
Let me give a quick example.
There are two characters in a coffee shop, hanging out and having a good time. One is named Harold, and the other is Wallace. Suddenly, the ground starts to shake, and a rumble fills the air. A dinosaur comes marching through the street, roaring and smashing into buildings. Harold immediately jumps up and starts running for the exits, following the other people trying to escape. Wallace however, paralyzed with fear, hides under the table and cowers in the shop.
Why do these two characters have different reactions? What makes Harold run with the crowd while Wallace tries to hide? These actions make much more sense if you already know a little about them. Let’s say Harold has never experienced something like this–he follows the crowd because he’s always been told to exit a building in an emergency. But Wallace…well, poor Wallace once had to evacuate a building, but he was small back then, and the crowds shoved and pushed him and he fell and broke his arm. He hates emergency exits, and would rather stay in one place and hide until the danger is passed.
Boom! With that simple paragraph of world-building figured out, this dinosaur coffee shop situation makes so much more sense. And now you almost feel sad for Wallace, don’t you? Because you know that he’s already been through something like this, and has trauma with emergency exits.
Now I know that was a pretty basic example for the point I’m trying to make–but I hope it got it across. Backgrounds are incredibly important when you’re writing a character–even if that background is never shared with your reader! As long as you know the backstory and reasoning behind your character’s personality, decisions, and worldview, it’s going to be far easier to write them, make them far more memorable and sympathetic, and make them so much more life-like. And hey, if you ever randomly need a prequel novella to your story, you already have some backstory to work with! 😉
And there we have it! One of the most important factors for a strong character that I feel needs to be focused on a little bit more. Do you write backgrounds for your character? What are some of the coolest backstories you’ve come up with? Let me know in the comments below! Thank you for reading, I hope this was even a little bit helpful.
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