Character Development – Back Story

I’ve been watchingBoneson Netflix recently.  It’s interesting to start watching a show from the first episode, because as an author I can recognize how the writers of the show develop the characters over the course of many episodes.  In TV, the background of the characters is revealed a little at a time, over the course of a season (or seasons).  In a novel, you don’t knowledge-dump character development, but the process is a bit less gradual.

One of the key pieces of making a character feel like a real person to the reader is to give them a back story.  There is more to any one character than the story you are telling, and while some pieces of their back story may be relevent to your tale, not all of them will be.  As the author, you should know more about your characters’ lives than the reader will ever find out.

For some characters, you may not even share any of their history.  Even for these, it’s important to know a little bit about what brought them to the tale.  Real people react to things in different ways because of their own personal stories; characters should do the same, and knowing where they came from and went through means you shape how they react through that kind of lens.

So if your characters are not as forthcoming with their stories as mine are (they can be so annoying sometimes!), what can you do?  My suggestion is to take a minute or two whenever you introduce a character to develop a sense of who they are before you write them in.  You don’t need the details of their life, but a few tidbits or even a basic overview can help.  Was this woman popular as a child?  Did this teenager spend most of third grade getting bullied?  Did a father lose his son, or a woman lose her mother?  Who does that cop consider a role model?  These kinds of facts aren’t necessarily key to the story, but think for a moment how they would change someone’s response in certain situations, and you can see how knowing a little bit more about your characters can really add a layer to your story.

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