Creating backstories is a foundational practice for writers of fiction. This is where and when you create characters with depth. You not only plot out how the character fits into your story, but how they drive the plot forward, how their choices and reactions impact the narrative and the others within the story. You also create a full-blown history for them. You create moments, experiences, and a life that never makes it into your story, but helps to explain who and what this character is. Why they do what they do.
This can certainly be time consuming, and some writers may even question whether it is worth the effort and time, but any investment in creating backstories, most certainly results in deeper, more authentic, and interesting characters.
Most writers have their own favorite ways of creating their characters’ backstories. A couple of my favorites are:
- Get a notebook and imagine that this is the diary of your character. Start to add entries as you climb into their thoughts and their skin. Write about their teenage angst, a first crush, or other moments that helped to make them the type of person they currently are in your story.
- Fill out a quick “loves/hates” list. What is their favorite color? What food do they hate? The possibilities are endless and the list can go on and on.
- Imagine you pulled a scrapbook of theirs off a shelf. What photos and mementoes would be in it? Why? What moments were captured? What does this reveal about who they are?
Creating backstories may not always seem productive or immediately impactful, but any time spent working on our creativity and writing skill, is time well spent.
Just for Practice:
One of my favorite writing activities to do with my students to help get their creative juices flowing and help them to practice creating backstories, is to show them some sort of painting with lots going on. We started with A Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Guiseppe Panto. We discussed the historical time period, the setting, and studied all of the different things we saw in the painting. I asked them to select a character or two on which to focus their creativity.
I then put on French Café music, (atmosphere is everything) and students began to write the backstory of the character in the painting on which they focused.
The room was silent as they wrote, thought, studied the painting, and wrote some more.
The result was some incredibly creative and engaging backstories. Feuding siblings, heartbroken widows, misguided intentions, and there was even a super hero in disguise, ( these were my elementary school students). As they took turns sharing the backstories they had created, they asked for more time to write. (Something every writing teacher yearns to hear!)
So next time you hit a wall or face a lull in your writing, shift your focus and work on building more of a back story for your character. You may be surprised at the fun you can have.