Some of the best characters are not be who they appear to be. I found these writing tips about characters, and character’s secret backgrounds by Karen Lazinger (see the original here).
Characters are the true heart of any story. The deeper and more complex the characters, the more soul-catching the story will be. We all love to read about brilliantly strategic queens, dauntless knights, corrupt kings, and scheming princes, for it is the characters who sweep us away on tides of emotion. They make us weep for loves lost, shock us with betrayals, and thrill us when crowns are won or lost, but none of this happens unless the reader truly cares for the characters. So how does an author create characters that are both fascinating and believable? One way is by creating a compelling backstory.
Backstory is essentially the character’s background, but for literary purposes it is far more than just the character’s place of birth, his family status, or his schooling. To create a powerful backstory, a writer needs to give his characters emotional landmarks. It is the triumphs and the scars of life that forge the very soul of the character. These emotional landmarks steer the character’s choices like a relentless compass. They give the character hidden depths and make them believable and intriguing. One of the best examples of a powerful backstory is Professor Snape in Harry Potter. Until Snape’s background is revealed, he is a riddle to the readers, a character who seems to serve both the Light and the Dark. Snape’s abiding love for Lilly explains all his actions, all his difficult choices. Everything makes sense in the light of the reveal.
But creating a great backstory can have its risks. Once a writer constructs a detailed backstory, they often feel compelled to spill the beans and tell everything to the reader. Too much backstory will strangle a book to death, choking the story with meaningless detail and tiresome flashbacks. Backstory should be like an iceberg, with most of it hidden below the surface. It is only when the reader draws close to the character that they look down and see what lurks beneath…the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I’ll tell you a secret about backstory…it’s a secret! Who doesn’t love a good secret? Secrets are delicious story questions. The more secrets your characters have the more they will tantalize your readers. Give your characters lost loves, or thwarted ambitions, unfulfilled dreams, secret fears, or skeletons in their closet. Writing in the fantasy genre provides authors with iridescent dimensions that other genres don’t have. Rare magical talents, secret skills, or royal bloodlines are often hidden in the backstory of fantasy characters. But no matter the genre, backstory provides powerful questions that weave beneath the plot and draw the reader through the story.
Top image was taken at Star Wars Celebration 2015 by Stephanie Burdo.