Your characters have backstories. What’s yours?

This question was sparked by an article I read several months ago, which I’ll share another time. But it’s important to understand where you are coming from when you’re writing.

We tend to write what we know (our setting), then what we can imagine (our plot and hero), then throw in what to us feels unimaginable (the obstacles and villain). Sometimes (as in speculative fiction) the imagination extends to the setting as well.

If we haven’t experienced a lot (or don’t understand what we’ve experienced so we don’t impart it), we can’t imagine very much. Our stories will be boring. If we have experienced too much (especially if we haven’t dealt with it), our stories can overwhelm the reader.

So where do we start? Let’s try the beginning.

  • Where were you born? Where did you grow up?
  • Were you exposed to a diverse group of people growing up? Or were your companions mostly like you?
  • When were you born? (generation, decade, birth order)

For example, I was born in Southern California in the early 60’s, the oldest of five. Where I grew up, there were hot, smoggy days in a crowded diverse city, in the middle of the desegregation movement. My mom was big on desegregation, used to wear buttons and go to rallies and such. Wealthy white kids bussed across town to poor black neighborhoods, and vice versa, I suppose.

We learned very quickly not to miss the school bus (as Lord of the Flies-like as that was), as then you had to take the city bus then walk six blocks through an area that looked okay but tended to collect children who had ditched class with nothing better to do than appropriate lunch money by force. The actual schoolyard was marginally safer.

In other words, the white kids mostly kept to themselves and hoped no one noticed they were there.

I had an unusual assortment of friends. One kid liked to pretend to do actual magic spells (like witchcraft), and another liked to sing the ‘Locomotion’ song every time we were on the bus. Him and his brother came over one day after school and taught me to curse in Spanish before my mother made them stop. I used to eat lunch with a girl and her uncle (somehow they were always close by in the line…) — her uncle was a year younger than she was, which amazed me.

The teachers, for the most part, were like in Peanuts, other than one who gave me a note at the end of the fourth grade saying I would “go far”. I might still have that note. πŸ™‚

Junior high was still busing but not as far away. By high school they realized busing across town didn’t work well, and I was able to walk to high school, which was, you know, high school. In general, the ‘gifted’ kids hung out together and pretty much ignored and were ignored by the rest. I was big for my age and by the time I was a freshman no one was trying to pound on me anymore.

So what do you do with the information you get? Take a look at it.

  • Are there any items (settings, characters, situations, feelings) that can go into a story? In mine, there are bus misadventures, heat waves, and feelings of not fitting in, among other things.
  • What would be the opposite of a particular item? (For example, instead of being the lone victim of robbery, what if your character was in the gang? Or came to the rescue?)
  • Can the item be exaggerated? (Maybe the kid actually could do magic spells in a public school)

Those are just a few suggestions. Of course, your beginning is as different from mine as your story is. See if you can’t give a shot at your backstory.