Our characters’ lives are complex. It’s easy to get wrapped up in what they’re afraid of, what their goals are, and what their odd little speech quirks are that we sometimes forget that our little fictional babies didn’t start with Chapter One. They started way before that (unless Chapter One is your MC’s birth, in which case excuse me), and just like with us their history has turned them into the complex creatures they are when your story begins.
Your character’s history is something that will likely pop up sooner or later while you’re writing anyway, so it can’t hurt to be prepared. As with all aspects of writing a book, it’s not necessary for you to know every tiny detail before you start writing the first paragraph – if you’re a pantser you might even prefer it that way! – but knowing at least some of the more basic details can help you when a side character suddenly asks your MC where he’s come from, or why he’s on this journey.
In Six of Crows, for example, Inej had a happy childhood walking the tightrope and generally getting a pretty good grasp over her balance – until she got kidnapped, shipped off on a slaver ship, and sold to a whorehouse. Both of those things – first her childhood then the slavery – had a huge impact on her life, play a massive role in the books, and influence her character development.
In Reflections, Rama’s history is everything. Before the beginning of the book she was raped, and she’s never told anyone about it. This affects the way she sees herself, her confidence, and her desire to become someone else, if only for a brief moment, which only informs the entire plot!
I’m currently reading A Torch Against the Night, the sequel to An Ember in the Ashes. Elias, a Martial who has grown up with his people’s brutality and superiority over just about everyone else, hates the things he’s expected to do and the way he’s meant to treat the other races. He’s seen this cruelty all his life, and it informs his decision to flee the Empire and help Laia, a Scholar girl he’s been taught to kill without question if told to.
Two examples from my own books: Rachael, my main character in the Relics of Ar’Zac trilogy, grew up as a homeless orphan hated by the other villagers because she has magic. She’s paranoid and very suspicious of strangers by the time the story starts. She’s also starved for love and friendship, so when she meets Cephy, a little girl who can control fire and is as hated by the other villagers as Rachael, she’s on her guard but she’s also tempted by the possibility of having the first friend of her life.
Doran, one of my four main characters in Darkened Light, travels and thieves his way through life, but he hasn’t always been a thief constantly on the move. He used to have a happy childhood growing up with his older brother, until the accident (Darkened Light isn’t out yet so I’ll leave it at that to avoid spoilers). He ran away from home, lived in Cairdh for a little while where he learned how to pick locks, pockets, and the prize of shiny valuables, and moved on when the monotony became boring. When the book starts he’s fairly selfish, a wee bit arrogant, and has a habit of getting himself into danger. But he has a kind and loyal side, too, and as the plot progresses he battles with which Doran he wants to be.
They inspire conflict! At the very least your character’s history affects some of her decisions and personality like in Six of Crows, but at most it can affect the entire plot like in Reflections and An Ember in the Ashes!
A few weeks ago I uploaded a character questionnaire, and some of the questions included are there to help you figure out your character’s past. Has your character ever been in love? What’s their earliest memory? Is he holding on to something he maybe shouldn’t be? You can still download the questionnaire here for free – just scroll down to the bottom of the post and it’s there waiting for you 🙂
How do you figure out your character’s history? Do you use a questionnaire, too, or do you use other methods? Pour yourself a tea and share away! 🙂
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