Many aspiring authors understand the need to develop the main character’s background (BG) without really understanding how or why. Sure, writers need something in the BG to explain why the character is where the or she is when the story begins, and maybe flavor the character’s reactions. And they know they should put some key notes like “alcoholic father” in the background to add some depth. Developing the character’s BG is so much more than that, however. So let’s discuss the “how & why” so that we can use the BG to maximum effect.
Why develop a thorough background?
Allow me to summarize it in one statement: The Inciting Incident of the movie, Titanic, is not when it decides to turn left or right on seeing an iceberg. Rather, that decision (or the irrelevance of either decision, it turns out) becomes the Inciting Incident because the captain can’t see the part of the iceberg below the surface.
More of it is unseen than seen, yet it would be a different (and boring) story if they saw the iceberg from a long way away and had time to turn. Likewise characters face decisions, and the result (their actions) has more to do with what we don’t see, lying beneath the surface. Without more below than above, that iceberg wouldn’t have sunk the ship, leading to all sorts of interesting goings on. Without the iceberg, the ship goes on without conflict, the rich guy throws Leonardo overboard to die, the woman marries the rich guy, and no one goes looking for the sunken ship, denying the old lady the opportunity to tell a great story 70 years later.
To be more specific, developing a character’s BG allows us to:
- Know the character’s basic information – age, social standing, career and skills, and a few key defining moments in the character’s life.
- Enhance the result of those key moments by smashing them against the other basic information, like blending two kinds of paint to get a new color.
- John grew up wealthy and privileged.
- BUT, in his career as a doctor, he befriended a middle-class guy
- BECAUSE they both have alcoholic parents and a penchant for golf.
- As a RESULT, John has doubts about the inherent value he has as a person, which previously had been a solid assumption based on his wealth, etc.
- When the Inciting Event hits, let’s say an earthquake that destroys John’s mansion, his sneaking suspicion that his friend is a better person than he is becomes a motivation for John to go live with him while his mansion is rebuilt.
- Life lessons and hijinks (AKA plot, theme, pacing, etc) ensue.
- Help determine and guide the character’s decisions after the Inciting Event, much the same way they led to it.
Not the best example, but I just whipped that together for illustration purposes. Now consider what happens if you create a BG for each of the other important characters, but in less detail. You have a depth of character that explains, on a heartfelt, visceral level, why the middle class guy feels charity toward the hapless rich guy, instead of being smug and turning his back on him like so many others would. The two BGs together will definitely inform the types of lessons and hijinks that thus ensue.
How to develop a thorough background
This is only one method, but it has worked for me.
I start with a 1-sentence description of who and what he is. John Thayer is a very wealthy doctor from a rich family. He was born April 3, 1972, in Boston, but moved to L.A. for a prestigious medical position. Both parents still live, and he has one less-successful brother with whom he is not close (AKA a subplot that ties into the things discussed above).
From there I add three paragraphs. One describes his childhood, another his primary school years, and the third the time between adulthood and the start of the book. We already know his childhood was privileged, giving him a sense of higher self-value and entitlement. And we know his father was an alcoholic, so let us decide that his high school years were turbulent at home, causing his first doubts about the inherent value of people based solely on wealth. And perhaps we decide that his good friend in Med School turned out to be poor, which John didn’t know until his friend’s dad died and the friend asked John to help with tuition. John not only said “no,” but felt personally betrayed, and cut off that friend. Deep inside John feels bad about that, and it’s a chink in his armor of self image.
I repeat this process with the other important characters because, as you can see, the events that shape the minor characters’ lives will impact how they react to John and the decisions they make after the earthquake.
Finally, I “interview” the main character just like a celebrity interview in Rolling Stones Magazine. Some questions are pointed while others are seemingly unrelated. For example, “Did you have pets growing up?” (What if he didn’t? Why not?) What was his first girlfriend’s name, and are they still together? (What if they aren’t? Why? How did that affect his next relationship?) I just keep going with this until I’m satisfied I have a deeper understanding of what makes this guy tick.
Once I have those details I’ll spend a few days internalizing them, asking more questions (What would he do as a child if he met a bum with tuberculosis? What would he do now? Why?) until I feel like I know the MC’s soul, his heart of hearts. I also know just what buttons to push in the story to torture my beloved MC and drive him toward personal growth.
I also may now have a solid understanding of a possible powerful theme for the novel, but when I write I usually don’t develop the theme until about 2/5 of the way through the novel, shortly after the Inciting Event. That way I can see how the story itself wants to be told, discover the theme it wants to have, and then use that information as I go through the rest of the Rising Tension, Climax, etc.
Do you have comments, suggestions, or other methods? I would love to hear them! Message me, or post in comments below.
NOTE: Another method people use with great success is to start backwards from the Inciting Event. Rich guy moves in with not rich guy. Why would he do that? Because he doubts his own worth compared to the guy, so it isn’t insulting to take his charity. Why does he doubt his own worth? Because he made friends with a guy who wasn’t rich, but was a great person anyway with similar interests. Why did they meet? Because rich guy is a doctor who met the friend as a patient. Why did he become a doctor? Because image is everything to wealthy families, and also explains how he afforded to go to med school. Etc, etc.