Looking back over this past year is quite a daunting experience. Life has changed so drastically for so many people. From the way we work to the way we interact with each other; the last few months have brought out both the best and worst in the people of the world.
I myself have been ill more often than well (not COVID, thankfully), and the levels of sheer frustration it brings when people do not behave is difficult to articulate. But I am lucky, I have not lost as much as so many around the world have, and what I can contribute I will, even if it is a small escape from the trying times, we are living in.
In the essence of looking back, I thought I would tell you a little more about how I build backstories to my characters and how I bring them into my stories. I feel that a comprehensive backstory to a character is essential, although not all of it will be included in your book, elements of your character’s past would have influenced who they are in the present.
Think back on your childhood, a particular event may have contributed to a habit or an idiosyncrasy that you still carry today. As an example, I lost a close friend of mine when I was sixteen, I clearly remember I was eating almonds when I found out that she had passed away and to this day I cannot stand the smell or taste of almonds.
Growing up a victim of bullying may make a character either timid and apologetic or it could make them aggressive and defensive. Events in your past help shape who you become and so it should be with your character
Much of your character’s backstory will not be seen in your book, but now and then it will add a whole new dimension to them.
Lilith, in my upcoming ‘Reborn’ novel, is based on the literal Goddess of hell, but I draw on the mythology that she was created at the same time as Adam and refused to be subservient to him. So, she is very strong-willed (she also has an extreme dislike for apples, it does get mentioned in a passing sarcastic comment). She also just happens to be gay, but that is my addition to the story.
Glitch, from Clockwork Renegades, is only mentioned to be lesbian in the first book when she mentions a previous partner and many of the Queen’s sadistic traits tie back to her upbringing.
Having a strong backstory for you to draw on will also give you a starting point from which to begin your character arc. An aggressive and defensive character can learn to open and be more vulnerable and the apologetic and timid character can become more assertive and bolder.
But how do you bring back story into your book without either info-dumping or dropping information into the story and leaving a random piece out of context?
The first is flashbacks. The easiest, but often most overused method. Personally, there is a fine line when it comes to flashbacks. I find too many become distracting and unnecessary and much of the time are just a way to add context in a way that could have been added more subtly with events in the present.
Unless your story is built specifically on two different times culminating in a conclusion, like a past and present life, flashbacks should be sparing, otherwise, readers can get lost in what is and is not important to the story.
Another, which I tend to use, is memories. I feel memory is different from flashbacks in the way it is written.
For example, in Clockwork Renegades Volume II, I reference events in the first Volume through one of my characters reflecting on a memory. A flashback would be a ‘rewrite’ of the scene, a memory is vaguer, more subtle. The same could be applied to a childhood event.
To show the difference between what I define as flashback and memory, I will return to the example of my late friend.
As a flashback, I would recount the events as they happened as if they were real-time.
I walked through the school corridors, dipping my hand into the packet in the pocket of my blazer to pull another almond. I slipped it into my mouth and crunched down as I frowned, wracking my brain, I wonder what the office wants with me this time.
If I am using a memory I would focus more on the feeling:
The semi-sweet taste of almond rolled over my tongue and my mind was assaulted with a flash.
“I’m sorry, she passed away yesterday.” I spit the small cake into a serviette.
Both bring back the past event, of course, the memory in the context of a conversation or an action would be important so that it makes sense.
Another method I use is dropping comments into the conversation.
“No, thank you.” I shook my head as she offered me a marzipan-covered square. “I haven’t eaten almonds since a dear friend passed, they remind me of her.”
At the end of the day, you need to find what works best for you and your book but keep your readers in mind. We authors do sometimes tend to go off on our own little tangents occasionally.
Keep safe, keep strong and keep going.
Happy reading and happy writing.