write tips

Character back stories! How to make them more realistic

Obviously, your character has been around before the story actually takes place, in their world. Your character’s past affect how they are now and the decisions they’ll make for the future. Even if your character’s back story never comes up in the story, it may even be good just for you to know, not only to better understand your character, but so that if anything from their past ever does come up, you can be prepared.

Sound good? Let’s start.

Beware of the sad back stories

Some characters require certain events in their past because it’s important for the rest of the story, or to develop certain characteristics. But 1. there’s such a thing as too much, and 2. really think through the repercussions of the things that happen.

I’m not saying there’s no place for tragic back stories, they do happen, and there’s a way to do them well. But understand that just compounding sad things on top of each other doesn’t automatically make the story more gripping or emotional. It’s hard to make a believable character built on that.

For example, I’m fine with your character losing their mother to fatal disease, maybe even losing their father as well. Perhaps they had a mean auntie to deal with because of that. But once you start having said auntie gunning down people in their living room to teach your MC a lesson their whole childhood, I’m going to start rolling my eyes.

If it’s essential to the plot that someone killed the MC’s father to create a sort of revenge plot, fine. Maybe it was even in front of the MC at the time. Tragic, but fine. But it’s going to start feeling forced if this character also has an evil twin, to whom they lost an arm, and also spit on their favorite puppy.

Notice that a lot of these overly-saddened stories have to do with exaggerated characters. Most of the errors I see have to do with characters that are made to be unrealistically bad in order to create dislike for that particular character, and a person from which the emotional scarring supposedly comes from. Personally, I think most times it’s not even needed. Unless the story centers around a personal problem, just let those nasty characters be an unsettling part of the background, but don’t put too much focus on them, if they have to exist at all.

If anything, allow the story you’ve already created to make up the nasty characters for you. For instance, we’ll create a character that grew up poor, lost their parents to some sickness, and resorted to being a thief at a young age.

A child on the streets has a couple of options, they may go to extended family, get taken to an orphanage, or figure out a way to escape both of those things and live on the streets. Let’s imagine the child has no extended family, and figures on a way to live on their own as a thief. The connections the child would make from that point on would be quite seedy people. As a matter of fact, they could become very aware to all of the underhanded happenings in the city as they get older. They could have all kinds of suspicious friends and contacts, and therefore, enemies. There could be someone that this character owes a favor for getting them out of something nasty.

See how there was no need to introduce an overly wicked person into this mix? Even within the suspicious connections that this character would have, there are even not-so-bad people within that, people that are victims of circumstances just as much as your main character. There could be someone pretty difficult and even malicious, just don’t go overboard, and make it feel natural to the story.

Aunties don’t usually gun down people in the living room.

Be realistic with the background your character has, and don’t let there be stark black and white in any given area. There should be tons of grays in between that make the story much more interesting and realistic.

Upbringing plays a big role

How a character is raised, whether they decide to rebel against it or not, is a huge part of their way of being, and I feel like this aspect is forgotten a lot in fiction. A character whose parents weren’t at all strict may have habits of keeping a messy room, leaving their things around, always losing stuff, even a more laid-back attitude on life. Someone forced to live with an uptight aunt, however, may have forged habits of only letting loose in certain spaces they’ve allowed themselves to be comfortable. And around strangers they automatically follow auntie’s rules of only speaking when spoken to, even if it’s subconsciously.

It applies to rebels, too. You might have a character that’s used to going against strict rules, and can’t stand them in any aspect in life now, even in their job, or in school. Maybe you have a character that made a point to be loud because they were raised in a quiet house, and now can’t help but fall into that pattern.

Upbringing makes habits, ticks, traits unique to that character that mold who they are today. They’re just as important as the tragic back story, if not more. The back story may have changed their life forever, but their upbringing can define how they react to it.

Take their environment into account

Just as your character’s upbringing influences their way of being, so does their environment in a very similar way. Did they grew up in a house or an apartment? In a city or on a farm? Was it typically hot or cold where they lived? When a character grows up in certain environments, they’re going to have certain ways of being that they’re used to, and certain things they’ll be drawn to for the familiarity.

A character used to living in a house in Alaska may hate having to move to an apartment in LA, California. They’re used to the brisk air, having a yard, longer days, and none of the hustle and bustle of city life. Or a character that hated living in Alaska may have the complete opposite response, anxious to get away from all of that and start with something new.

These things are useful to know when your character is being introduced to new experiences. In fantasy, characters are always whisked away into a completely new form of life, but their personal experiences help define how they’ll react to them. Someone who grew up on an animal farm will be no stranger to working up a sweat to accomplish what needs to be done. They’re not squeamish about getting right in the dirt, or even the slaughtering of nasty beasts — they used to kill and butcher animals all the time. But someone that grew up in the city would be totally lost, and would need some time to get used to their world being flipped upside down.

The past is very important

All of these facts about your character may not even need mention in the story, but I feel like it’s good for you, as the author, to know. You’ll have an arsenal of details to flesh out about your character at different points of the story. It gives them depths, makes them feel like a real person with a real history that we get to experience through the way they react to the world around them.

Even past accomplishments or regrets can be relevant to their present. Maybe the character avoids subjects that remind them of something they wish they never did. Or they perk up at mention of something they’ve become the expert of through previous experiences. People that inspired them at some time should be mirrored in their way of being. They should want to mimic the people that were a good influence on their life. They should take the people that had a negative affect on them and let them serve as an example of what they don’t want to be.

When you go into your character’s back story, don’t just focus on the tragic parts, or the revenge plots, figure out what made them who they are. Make your character human through their past.

They still shape their own future

Now that you have the knowledge of what molded your character through their past, you can even have your character break that mold as they move on into their future. Your character could have started out as a product of their environment, but their new experiences and new choices in life should also form their future.

They should learn from mistakes, hold on to the good, and maybe even change in some ways. Let your readers be part of how your character evolves into the person they will be at the end of the book. Knowing where they came from, and seeing where they end up being, it’s a beautiful thing, and it’s a memorable experience.

Or maybe your character has tried to escape their past, and comes to realize that they need to acknowledge some part of where they came from to move on. I love when flawed characters come to a point where they analyze what got them where they are and making a change. It’s a complex thing that is remarkable when done well.

Either way, try character back stories are an excellent feature of any good read, and I hope you have fun writing yours.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

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