Your characters’ backstories – common issues

backstory for charactersOne of the key pieces of advice we receive when writing a novel (or a screenplay) is to know our characters’ backstories. It’s good advice because without a deep understanding of what has happened to a character before he or she shows up in our novel, we won’t have a grip on something vital – motivation.

Everything that has happened to a person in their life goes into making who they are right now. In ten years’ time, something new might have changed them, such the death of a child. We all have dozens of events that have gone into forming us, just as our characters do. The problem for writers arises when you pile too much into the backstory, and then don’t understand what the possible effects might be. It’s why some writers consult psychologists and psychology texts as research.

I had my first introduction to this in a screenwriting workshop, where the tutor explained the different outcomes for a person who has had either a very distant mother or an overly intrusive mother. Here I became aware of the psychological depths of different fears – fear of abandonment, fear of intimacy, etc. Of course, it can get very complicated, but even a smattering of knowledge can help you.

For example, a character who had an idyllic childhood may have a false sense of the world being a safe and wonderful place – your job in the novel might be to cause a catastrophe that entirely explodes their utopian beliefs. On the other hand, a character who has been abused as a child will inevitably carry that through to adulthood somehow. Somehow is the key word.

The problem with giving your character a child abuse backstory is this – everyone deals with it differently. Some people never get over it and suffer terribly, sometimes committing suicide. Some go another way and cut themselves off from any emotional relationships. Some are able to grow away from the abuse and become tough (maybe too tough) and others dedicate their lives to helping children in similar situations. There are many possibilities.

If you give your character this backstory, your challenge as the writer is to research and make the character, as they appear in your novel, believable and get your reader to care about them. Giving the character an abuse backstory doesn’t automatically ensure either will happen. You also need to recognize that probably this is enough trauma for one person and not load anything else onto them!

This is a more extreme example. Loading too many things into backstory can be a much simpler problem that leads to a character who never seems to know what they’re doing on the page, because their actions and reactions each time are coming from different places. Let me explain. Recently I was working with a character (let’s call her Mary) who had been a beauty queen as a teenager. Mary is now about 35, and has a daughter who is obese toward whom she feels some revulsion. Mary is still beautiful, slim, and is a musician/singer who works with elderly people in music therapy. You can probably already feel Mary groaning under all the “stuff” I loaded onto her!

Now, Mary is not the main character in my novel. She’s a supporting character. I needed her to be “real” and for her actions and reactions (especially towards her daughter) to be believable and understandable. More importantly, for the story, her singing and music turned out to be the key to her backstory. After quite a bit of free writing (I used a favorite technique of “interviewing” Mary and free writing her answers), I realized that the beauty queen part of her backstory was too much. Mary’s real lack of understanding of her daughter comes from another place – her failures as a musician – not from the beauty pageant stuff. In fact, once I did the work on Mary, the beauty queen element seemed almost farcical.

You might ask why I would do so much work on a supporting character, yet I find any time a character is not coming to life, it’s time to develop their backstory and make them real. The more interaction they have with my main character, the more important this becomes.

If you want more exercises to help you develop your novel, go to my 30 DAY PLAN FOR NOVEL DEVELOPMENT

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  1. Sharon Welgus says

    That was really helpful, Sherryl. It had never occurred to me to research the psychology of a character. At my age, I guess I’ve been relying on my life experience. For example, I’m thinking about a short story about a woman who needs to find her sense of self again after caring for her late mother for several years. I’ll go and research it now. I really appreciate your generosity in sharing so much with your writing community.
    Sharon Welgus

    • I think this is one reason why I enjoy crime fiction, Sharon – you get a lot of the psychology of characters (even if most of it is negative!). Glad you are finding it useful. If you have a topic you want more about, just let me know!

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