For most stories, we don’t get to see every moment of a character’s life. We certainly don’t get to see every moment of every single character. Often the parts of a character’s life we don’t see are referred to as backstory. That is where they came from, what their home life was like, their personal biography up to the point of the story.
Backstory is a powerful thing. It informs character actions and helps us as writers figure out how, why and what makes our characters tick. It’s also rife with other smaller stories we might not consider.
Take your main characters parents. Even if they don’t know or never met their parents, they had to come from somewhere. How did their parents meet? What made them have a child together? What were their hopes and dreams for their son or daughter? Are they proud of them or dismissive? In the case of those who grew up with their families, what did they struggle with when raising your main character? For those who were orphaned or abandoned, what made their parents do it?
Those are all questions that can be answered by looking at the backstory of the parents. Even if it’s just a brief summary, having that on hand sometimes helps when trying to help develop and flesh out your characters.
It might also help to think about other people your character would have interacted with outside of the main story. Childhood friends, teachers, extended family members, neighborhood bullies—all of these are people who might have an impact on your character before they come into the story and before your readers meet them. While they most likely won’t show up in the story, it bleeds into your writing.
The nice thing about backstory is that it’s not limited to people, especially when you’re attempting to world build. Think about particular holidays or events your character would witness during their lifetime. What makes those holidays important? How did their traditions come about? If there’s a particular event such as an annual balloon race, how did that come about? How long has it been occurring? What significance does it have for participants today?
As an exercise: Take fifteen minutes and write out a biography for your character or characters from birth up to the start of the story. Then go through that bio and highlight people and events that don’t show up in the story. Work out brief biographies and histories for each item.
Music is a powerful form of communication. Across languages and cultures, songs hold a prominent place in both history and storytelling. And that’s exactly what we’re tackling today.
As an exercise: Set your music to shuffle and press play. Build a character based around the first song that comes up. Really listen to that song and dig into it. Let the instrumental choices inspire their looks and personality. Examine the lyrics for their internal conflicts and arcs.
Repeat the above exercise for a second character with another random song. Once you have both characters fleshed out, write a scene in which these two characters are going on a first date.
If you’ve ever heard that there’s no new stories, you might feel a little disheartened, especially if you’re wondering why you should be writing. The bad news is that for the most part, it’s true: there’s no new elements in storytelling. The good news however, is that the elements themselves are only minorly important, what makes your story unique is how you combine them.
For today I want to talk about thematic elements specifically. By definition, theme is an idea that recurs in art or literature. That covers a lot of ground from particular settings to character archetypes to messages.
One of the best examples of thematic elements are fairy-tale retellings. The characters tend to crop up again and again, often facing some of the same conflicts. Cinderella has to face her Evil Stepmother. Red Riding Hood faces the Wolf. Beauty saves the Beast.
Some elements, such as symbols, are also powerful thematic elements. The glass slipper, for instance is often used to represent Cinderella. Mixing these symbols up among stories gives a new angle on the story. What happens when it’s a bite of Snow White’s apple that can break the Beast’s curse, instead of true love? What happens when Rapunzel is the one cursed to sleep for a hundred years?
Even playing with setting as a thematic element can create unique stories. Taking Robin Hood out of Sherwood Forest and putting him in New York City certainly changes things! What happens when King Arthur is removed from the settings of Camelot and Avalon?
As an exercise: Pick three of your favorite books or movies and compare their thematic elements. Consider what character archetypes appear. Think about the symbols and messages used throughout. And finally, think of how the story might be impacted by changing the setting.
Graphology is the study of handwriting and the personality traits it reveals about the writer. While it’s a lot of fun to look at your own handwriting, for a writer, it also offers a chance to develop our characters off the page.
As an exercise: Sign your character’s name. Try out different styles and think about how they might write. Would they use thick, bubbly letters, or spikier, slanted letters?
When meeting someone for the first time, your first impression may or may not be right. The same goes for characters. Like real people, characters don’t always perceive each other correctly. Sometimes we can think of someone as ‘bossy’ when they’re just trying to be helpful. That expands far beyond first impressions.
As an exercise: List each character and how they view the others in your story. Consider what causes this impression and how it’s different from others’ views on the same character.