Backstories: Why They Are Important

by | January 22, 2019 |

Backstories. First, what are they?

They are akin to a suitcase an actress will pack for a scene where she needs to be carrying one. But she won’t necessarily open it.

Packing the bag is one way for the actress to establish her character for herself. The underwear she chooses may never be revealed. But it may have relevance to the way the character sees herself and behaves.

Backstories and Suitcases: Three Characters

Character One. For the title image I chose a bulging suitcase. What are the implications for the character who packed it – or, at least, tried to do so? I’d say she’s haphazard, last-minute and unrealistic. She clearly doesn’t understand the relationship between the amount of clothing she tries to pack and the volume of the suitcase at hand.

What could her overstuffed suitcase say about other aspects of her life in the story being told on stage? Well, perhaps she similarly overestimates the amount of things she can buy with respect to the size of her bank account. The plot may involve some aspect of her constant money problems.

Now let’s imagine a different set of circumstances.

An actress packs her character’s suitcase with an object from her childhood.

What are the possibilities?

Character Two. The object was given to her by a dearly beloved close relative.

Character Three. The object reminds her of a negative event, one she quite literally can’t let go of.

In the case of Character Two, the childhood memento lets the actress value her character’s strong sense of family. In the case of Character Three, the actress builds her character as the kind to hold a grudge.

Backstories: Ask Questions

In order to have three-dimensional characters in your story, you need to know what’s in their emotional and psychological suitcases.

In the cases of my three examples above, you would want to establish:

The origin of the first character’s money problems.

What motivates her spendthrift ways? Are they hurting anyone but herself? Does she care about something or someone enough to cause her to change her ways?

The people who created the second character’s strong sense of family.

Is the close relative who gave her the childhood gift still alive? It that close relative the only strong family bond she has/had? What feelings arise when she holds or looks at the memento?

The details of the third character’s negative event and the people involved in it.

How long has she been holding this grudge? What makes her think she is justified in holding it? What is the part of her responsibility – either acknowledged or unacknowledged – in the negative event?

Backstories: Pack a Suitcase

Some authors write out extensive character sketches before putting pen to paper (fingers to keyboard). These typically involve their backstories: the events motivating where the characters are today. I can’t even begin to imagine doing that.

I’m not a planner, I’m a pantser (I write by the seat of my pants). It wasn’t until writing this blog that I recalled the third story, Knocked Out, in my Forest Breeze trilogy I am now revising (re-release April 2019). On the very first page my heroine, Brisa, picks up her duffel bag at the international airport at Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam:

“I always pack light and could have managed with only a carry-on to hold the few toiletries I use, my underwear, my fighting gear, one set of what I’m wearing now, namely black cargoes and a black T, along with a second set of the same combo in khaki. However, on a trans-Pacific flight such little gear might have put someone on the alert. So, before leaving LA, I threw in a couple of warm-up jackets I doubt I’ll need, plus a second pair of running shoes and a few pairs of sandals.”

Now, in retrospect, I realize that I immediately created for myself a character who is no frills, no make-up, all work, super cautious.

I’m not sure I knew then her exact backstory – how Brisa would come to pack a bag so minimally – but I figuratively unpacked it as I got to know her and the story. I discovered that she came from a family background as emotionally depleted as her duffel. But as she fought for her place in the world, she also became one of my favorite heroines, tough and righteous.

My advice: get to know your character by packing her bag, then ask the questions that lead to her choices.

Backstories: What’s In Your Character’s Handbag?

On occasion, I’ve catalogued the contents of a character’s handbag, which is telling. I packed a doozie of a mess for another favorite heroine of mine, Eloise in The Crimson Hour.

Equally telling is the absence of a handbag. For instance, minimalist Brisa doesn’t carry one.

See also: How to Create a Character Arc


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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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