Writing Your Character’s Backstory

60 Second Advice by Anne  Brees

Backstory is essential because it helps your readers understand your characters. While not all personality traits are caused by something in a person’s past, most of people’s behavior can be explained by their past. A character whose parents had a messy divorce might be wary about love. A character whose sibling died young might be scared to get close to people.

However, when do you tell the reader about the backstory? You can’t spend too much time in the past or else your plot will be lost. Flashbacks are never a great choice, because it’s too easy for a flashback to stretch for chapters. Plus, they can be confusing to the reader whether they are in the present or past.

The best way to  tell backstories is in small quantities, spread out throughout your story. This can also add to the suspense of your story and keep your reader reading, as they look forward to finding out the tragic backstory. Maybe your character meets an old friend and as they talk, you can hint at the past. Maybe something similar to what happened in the past happens to your character, and they revel in the déjà vu. Maybe they meet a new friend, and have to tell the story of their past.

Also, not every character needs a tragic backstory. People can be brave or broken without something horrible or amazing happening.

No matter how you tell your backstory, remember that your reader is intelligent. You don’t have to spell out every single event of their childhood. Your reader can connect the dots. Focus on the present of the story, and only mention the past.

What is your characters’ backstory?

Describing Character Appearance

60 Second Advice by Anne Brees

When it comes to what your character will look like, there seems to be a thousand options. The truth is, your reader probably doesn’t care. They don’t care what color eyes or  your MC has. They don’t care if your character is 5’1″ or 6’1″. Your readers will have their own picture of what your character looks, and will probably forget your descriptions only a few lines later.

Diversity is key. There isn’t enough representation in writing. There are more people with stories to tell than straight white men. However, don’t write with diversity because it’s a trend or you feel like you have to. Research and write it well.

Pick a few appearances details and focus on those. What does your character notice about themselves? What do other characters notice? Maybe it’s a certain scar. (Perhaps a lightning bolt on a forehead?) Maybe it’s a missing finger. Maybe it’s wild curly hair. Maybe it’s a slight limp. Your reader won’t remember all of the aspects of your character that you describe, so choose to mention a few and let those represent your character.

Focus on the stuff that’s more important. Appearance means little. Focus on your character arc and flaws and quirks. That will make your character much more memorable than describing their eye color multiple times.

What is your character’s most defining physical feature?

Character Flaws

60 Second Advice by Anne Brees

It’s all too easy for your main character to be perfect. You want them to be loyal, kind, honest, funny, empathetic, and so much more because you want your characters to be likable. However if your characters don’t have flaws, they aren’t going to seem lifelike. Few readers like characters who aren’t lifelike.

Your characters should be as real people, and all real people have flaws. We are complex and jealous and mean and dishonest, because we are human and we aren’t perfect all the time. One way you can add and explain flaws are by adding backstory. Events of the past affect people, and not always for the good.

Maybe your MC is jealous because they’ve been working so hard to achieve what another character already has. Maybe they are mean because they don’t have any patience left after everything they’ve dealt with that day. Maybe they are dishonest because they are afraid of what other people might think of them if they are themselves. Maybe they are rude because someone was already mean to them today.

Keep in mind that flaws don’t always have to be explained. Some people are just meaner than others.

In order to appear lifelike, your characters must have flaws. It ends up that most of the time, it’s the flaws that make your characters likable, not the good things.

What is your main character’s flaw? Did something cause them to be this way?

Dynamic vs. Static Characters

60 Second Advice by Anne Brees

The use of dynamic and static characters is essential to leaving your readers satisfied after finishing your story. Dynamic characters are characters who change throughout the story, while static characters do not change. 

Your main character, and most of your other essential characters, should be dynamic characters. In order for your story to feel complete, your character must change. Maybe your shy character finally is brave enough to fight for what she believes in. Your ruthless character learns mercy. Your quarrelsome character leans peace. Your main character must be a dynamic character.

The liar will always be a liar, even though your characters may (unfortunately for them) trust her. The thief will always be a thief. (Once again, unfortunate for your characters.) The kind will always be kind. (A little more fortunate for your characters.) Static characters can also help move along the plot and cause complications.

Is your main character a dynamic character? What is the change that your main character goes through?

5 Tips For Naming Your Characters

5 Tips by Anne Brees

The name of your character is going to stay with your book the whole way. It’s very important to get it exactly right. Lucky for you, you don’t have to know your characters’ names before you start writing. I have started stories and named my characters @, $, ^, %, and *, just so that I could get on with the story and come back to the hard naming business later. But, once you get to that hard naming business, here are five tips to consider.

  1. Consider the traditions of your story world when it comes to naming. For example, in the Hunger Games, all of the characters from District 12 have nature based names. (Katniss, Primrose, Gale, etc.) If you have a story set in any time period besides our own, don’t chose name from this time period, because chances are they won’t be popular. (Just as Edith and Mabel aren’t still popular today.) Making your names fit the story world is very important, just be careful not to go too overboard. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rolled my eyes at the ridiculous names in some stories.
  2. What is the character’s parents’ pasts and values? Even if you don’t answer this question with in your story, this is a good thing to consider when naming your character. It can add a lot to your character’s background too.  Parents’ lifestyles often affect what they name their child. Sports fans may name their children after their favorite athelete. Music fans may name their children after their favorite artists. What is your character’s parents like?
  3. How does your character feel about their name? Most people have some sort of feeling regarding their names. Once again, even if you never mention it within your story, it can still add a lot to your character building. Do they love it? Hate it? Accept it, but would rather have something different? Is it too different? Too normal? The name you choose shapes the character.
  4. How do others feel about your character’s name? Everyone has their opinions about certain names, based on the people that they’ve met with that name. How do the characters in your story respond when they hear your character’s name? And how does your character respond to their response?
  5. What is the current day connotation of that name? How would your readers respond to this name? Think of any famous or infamous people with this name and how they are viewed. Will it affect the way your character is viewed?
  6. (Bonus) Does your character’s name have a hidden meaning? One of my favorite things to do is to put hidden meaning into my story. Maybe your shy character’s name means bold. Or, maybe the character’s unknown father’s name means father. *cough Vader cough*

Some other website tools that help me choose my characters’ names are Nymblr, Behind the Name, and Random Name Generator.

What tricks do you use to help name your character?