Fiction Writing Made Easy

#145. How To Develop Your Character's Backstory

June 04, 2024 Savannah Gilbo Episode 145
#145. How To Develop Your Character's Backstory
Fiction Writing Made Easy
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Fiction Writing Made Easy
#145. How To Develop Your Character's Backstory
Jun 04, 2024 Episode 145
Savannah Gilbo

Crafting compelling backstories for your fictional characters is critical to developing a cohesive story, but it’s sometimes easier said than done.

There are endless options when it comes to which details you can include in your character’s backstory, and what you do include will influence everything that happens in your story—from the plot events to your character’s motivations to your own ability to manage the thematic subtext of your story on a scene-by-scene-basis.

In this episode, I’m going to walk you through how to develop your character’s backstory in three steps, including things like:

  • [04:12] How to uncover your character’s wounding event that gives rise to a specific fear (or inner obstacle) that haunts them in the present-day
  • [06:57] A framework to help you crystalize your character’s inner obstacle—and why doing this work helps you establish where their character arc starts
  • [09:31] How your character’s backstory can help inform your plot (and help you create meaningful conflict to help them grow and change)
  • [12:55] An exploration of Simon Basset’s backstory and character arc (from the first Bridgerton book, The Duke & I)
  • [17:42] Episode recap and final thoughts

Developing your character’s backstory before you start writing can help you develop your theme, craft your plot, build your story world, and so much more. That being said, there’s no “right” or “wrong” time to flesh out your character’s backstory. Do whatever works best for you and your process!

Click here to listen!

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Also, if you haven't done so already, make sure you're following the podcast! I'll be adding a bunch of bonus episodes to the feed, and if you're not following the show, there's a good chance you'll miss them. Click here to follow now!

🔗 Links mentioned in this episode:

👋 Interested in becoming a book coach? Click here to learn more about Author Accelerator's Book Coach Certification Program!

👉 Looking for a transcript? If you’re listening on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, scroll down below the episode player until you see the transcript.

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Crafting compelling backstories for your fictional characters is critical to developing a cohesive story, but it’s sometimes easier said than done.

There are endless options when it comes to which details you can include in your character’s backstory, and what you do include will influence everything that happens in your story—from the plot events to your character’s motivations to your own ability to manage the thematic subtext of your story on a scene-by-scene-basis.

In this episode, I’m going to walk you through how to develop your character’s backstory in three steps, including things like:

  • [04:12] How to uncover your character’s wounding event that gives rise to a specific fear (or inner obstacle) that haunts them in the present-day
  • [06:57] A framework to help you crystalize your character’s inner obstacle—and why doing this work helps you establish where their character arc starts
  • [09:31] How your character’s backstory can help inform your plot (and help you create meaningful conflict to help them grow and change)
  • [12:55] An exploration of Simon Basset’s backstory and character arc (from the first Bridgerton book, The Duke & I)
  • [17:42] Episode recap and final thoughts

Developing your character’s backstory before you start writing can help you develop your theme, craft your plot, build your story world, and so much more. That being said, there’s no “right” or “wrong” time to flesh out your character’s backstory. Do whatever works best for you and your process!

Click here to listen!

⭐ Rate + Review + Follow on Apple Podcasts

"I love the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast!" ← If that sounds like you, please consider rating and reviewing this show! Your rating and review will help other writers find this podcast, and they're also super fun for me to read. Just click here, scroll all the way to the bottom, tap five stars to rate the show, and then select "Write a Review." Be sure to let me know your favorite episodes, too! 

Also, if you haven't done so already, make sure you're following the podcast! I'll be adding a bunch of bonus episodes to the feed, and if you're not following the show, there's a good chance you'll miss them. Click here to follow now!

🔗 Links mentioned in this episode:

👋 Interested in becoming a book coach? Click here to learn more about Author Accelerator's Book Coach Certification Program!

👉 Looking for a transcript? If you’re listening on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, scroll down below the episode player until you see the transcript.

Speaker 1:

People are products of their past, and if we want our characters to come across as authentic and believable, then we need to understand their backstories. Wounds, in particular, damage a character's self-worth, they change how they view the world, they can cause trust issues and they can dictate how that character will interact with other people. All of this can make it harder for them to achieve specific goals, and it can make it easier for you to create meaningful conflict for them to face as they pursue those goals. Welcome to the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast. My name is Savannah Gilbo and I'm here to help you write a story that works. I want to prove to you that writing a novel doesn't have to be overwhelming, so each week, I'll bring you a brand new episode with simple, actionable and step-by-step strategies that you can implement in your writing right away. So whether you're brand new to writing or more of a seasoned author looking to improve your craft, this podcast is for you. So pick up a pen and let's get started. In today's episode, we're going to talk about developing character backstory, including the three ingredients you can and should develop when it comes to backstory. But before we dive into all the juicy details, let's make sure we're on the same page about what I mean by backstory. So what is backstory? Well, to put it simply, backstory is everything that has happened before your story starts, on page one, and it's going to influence everything that happens in your story, from the plot events to your character's motivations, to your ability to manage your thematic subtext. And if you're thinking that sounds like it's something really important, then you are correct. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to talk about this topic today, because I do think there are a lot of great resources out there about you know how to find your character's inner obstacle or that wound that they you know that they've carried with them since they were young, or whatever piece of backstory, or you know things like that. But I think there's also a way that we can look at developing backstory in a more organic sense and, like I said, we're going to talk about the three key pieces of character backstory to develop, and by focusing on each one of those and how each one of those things works together with the other two things, that leads you to developing backstory in a really nice and organic way. So we're going to dig into all of that.

Speaker 1:

But first, a question I get asked all the time is something like when do I worry about developing backstory? And like most things in writing, the answer is it depends. You can really work on character backstory anytime you want, depending on what works best for you and your writing practice. So sometimes writers will start brainstorming a character's background before they have a fully formed plot, and this works well for them. Other writers might go back and flesh out a really good and in-depth backstory for a character after they've finished their first draft. So there's no right or wrong way to go about this.

Speaker 1:

Personally. For me, I like to flesh out as much of a character's backstory as I can before I write the first draft draft, just because backstory can and does inform so much of the story. So that's what works for me in my process. And then one last thing before we dive in, I want to mention that I have another episode on character backstory, so it's episode number 14, called how to Handle Character Backstory in your Novel. If you haven't heard that episode yet, it will pair very nicely with today's episode. So this episode that you're currently listening to is about how to develop your character's backstory, and then episode 14 is about how to write backstory in your novel, so how to weave it into the present and, you know, not go too overboard with too much backstory or too much info dumping or things like that. Okay, so we will put the link to that episode in the show notes for you.

Speaker 1:

And now let's dive into how to brainstorm and develop your character's backstory. And, like I hinted at earlier, there are three key ingredients that you will want to flesh out. So the first one is a wound, the second one is an inner obstacle and the third one is your character's current behavior and motivations. So, one more time, those three ingredients were a wound, inner obstacle and your character's current behavior and motivations. All right, so let's dig into how to uncover your character's wound first. So what is a wound? Well, a wound is the result of something that has happened in your character's past that has caused psychological or emotional pain and the very strong belief that that thing could happen again. Okay, so it's something that happened in the past that has given rise to a specific fear, and the keyword there is specific. So we really want to drill down into okay, this happened to my character in the past. It caused psychological and or emotional pain. Because of that, my character believes it could happen again, and this is specifically what they're afraid of Now.

Speaker 1:

This is important because people are products of their past and if we want our characters to come across as authentic and believable, then we need to understand their backstories. Wounds, in particular, damage a character's self-worth. They change how they view the world, they can cause trust issues and they can dictate how that character will interact with other people. All of this can make it harder for them to achieve specific goals, and it can make it easier for you to create meaningful conflict for them to face as they pursue those goals. So when you're thinking about how to uncover your character's wound, think about traumatic events that might have happened in their past. Maybe they were betrayed by someone they liked or loved, or they put their trust in the wrong person. Maybe they faced some kind of injustice or hardship when they were growing up or, if your character's older in the present day, maybe when they were in college or, you know, just at some point in their past. Maybe they were a victim of some kind of crime, or maybe they made some kind of really big mistake or they failed at something really important.

Speaker 1:

So there's a lot of areas you can mine for a wound, but again, we're just looking for something that happened in the past that caused psychological or emotional pain and created a fear, so a strong belief, that that thing could happen again, and a fear that the same thing or something similar will happen. Now, a really good resource for digging into character wounds is a book called the Emotional Wound Thesaurus A Writer's Guide to Psychological Trauma, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, and we will link to that book in the show notes. But this is one of my favorite resources. Even if you don't know what your character's wound is, you can flip through this book and you'll get so many ideas and then, once you land on something, the authors have listed out ways that those types of wounds can impact your character's life in the present and or the future. So it's a really, really great resource and again, I will link to that in the show notes. But that is your first step, to uncover your character's wound, and we're going to use that as we develop the next two steps. So, moving on to step two, you want to discover your character's inner obstacle and if we think about what we just did in step one, we found that wound or that moment that created the wound or that specific fear right.

Speaker 1:

So when, in that vulnerable state from that wounding event, your character is going to try to understand or rationalize that painful experience and they're going to come up with some kind of false conclusion, so through flawed logic they're going to reach a conclusion about themselves or the world that is not true. And usually this false belief or this lie or this outdated worldview it's usually tied to disempowering beliefs that the character is unworthy, incompetent, naive, defective, lacks value or something like that. And it's this inner obstacle that causes your character to hold back. So it makes it difficult for them to love fully or trust deeply or live a life without reservation whatever that is in your story, within your character's arc. This inner obstacle will often clash with your character's effort to achieve their goal because deep down they feel unworthy of it and the happiness that it will bring. And it's only when they're able to shatter their false belief or overcome this internal obstacle that they will truly feel like they deserve the prize they seek and usually get it.

Speaker 1:

So a formula I like to get my creative juices flowing and a formula that you can borrow goes something like this Because of TBD wound, my character believes inner obstacle. So, for example, because my character's brand new business idea was stolen by their best friend and now that best friend's a millionaire, that's the wound right. They believe no one can be trusted. So that's the inner obstacle. Or here's another example Because my character got tangled in underwater debris and almost drowned. That's the wound right, that traumatic event. They now believe that the world is too dangerous and the only safe place is in their home. So that is the internal obstacle, or that false belief.

Speaker 1:

And hopefully you can see from these examples how that wounding event and the inner obstacle it created can still very much impact your character by the time the story starts on page one. So what we're really trying to create is not only their backstory but how their character arc is starting on page one. So your reader is going to meet your character when they already have this inner obstacle and we now know that it comes out of this traumatic event or this wounding experience that we fleshed out in step one. Okay, so that's step two. We want to discover our character's inner obstacle. Now, moving on to step three. Step three is to brainstorm how this will all show up in the present day, and by present day I mean from page one of your story to the end of your story and, like I just kind of hinted at your character's backstory and this inner obstacle and this wounding event. They can all help you decide how to start and end your story.

Speaker 1:

Because at the beginning of your story your character is going to be acting and behaving from a place of believing that inner obstacle and if they don't learn the lesson of the story or they don't, you know, learn that theme, they're not going to get what they want right. So in order for them to get what they want and to move on and find happiness or succeed or whatever that is, your character will need to dismantle that inner obstacle and basically dampen the effect that that wounding event has on their present life. And I will say here this is not always true for every single story. This is true if you're writing a story with a positive change arc. So if you're writing the kind of story where the protagonist learns a lesson and they grow by the end, even if that growth is painful, you're probably writing a story with a positive change arc and what I just said will apply. If you're writing a story with a negative change arc, then your character's most likely not learning that lesson. So in that scenario, usually they're doubling down on their inner obstacle or that outdated belief. So just something to keep in mind.

Speaker 1:

But at this stage you want to use all the information you've already fleshed out to further develop your character's flaws, behaviors and traits. So you can consider things like okay, if my character has lived with this specific internal obstacle for this amount of time by the start of page one, how are they going to act on a daily basis? You can also think about what their emotional armor looks like. So, because of that wound and trying to, you know, protect this inner obstacle and not get triggered, what kind of emotional armor did they have to develop? What are some behaviors they've developed based on that inner obstacle and that wound, and what flaws do they have now? So there might be, you know, flaws that came out of this wounding experience, but there also might be some really good things too. So what qualities and flaws do they have now?

Speaker 1:

All of this brainstorming, work around your character's wound and internal obstacle can also help inform your plot. So the plot of your story should be constantly challenging your character's internal obstacle. It should force them to choose repeatedly between upholding that flawed belief or clinging to that inner obstacle or finally dismantling it. And each time they fail to change, there should be consequences that further complicate your plot. So this is also where it helps to think of. You know, what are those things that trigger my character's wound or that make them put up that emotional armor? What kinds of events are they not going to want to be in, that are actually quite good for them in terms of learning their lesson and growing and changing? Just some things to think about. So that's step three just thinking about how the wound and their inner obstacle and their backstory can show up in the present day. And it's not just reminders of how it shows up right, it's how your character has internalized that wounding event and the fear and the inner obstacle that is birthed from that wounding event, and how it shows up in their behavior and their actions. And I think that's a really key piece of the puzzle that writers can dig into a little bit more and use to their benefit.

Speaker 1:

Okay, so I want to look at a case study and I want to talk about the lead male character in the first Bridgerton book. So, mr Simon Bassett, and if we go through those three steps right, the first one is we want to think about what is the traumatic event that created Simon's wound. Well, what we know about Simon is that his mother died in childbirth and when he was four he wasn't able to speak clearly due to a speech impediment, and the Duke, his father, ordered him to get out of his sight, saying that Simon was dead to him. So he was taken in by Lady Danbury and he was able to work on improving his speech, but he was still shunned by his father and talked down to and insulted and things like that, every single time he visited. So the traumatic event was that day that you know you're dead to me. I wish I never had you. I wish I never met your mother. You know that whole conversation was the wounding event and it was further aggravated every time.

Speaker 1:

Now step two is to figure out what kind of internal obstacle or specific fear this traumatic event created. So for Simon, it's one thing to grow up abandoned. It's another thing to know exactly why that person abandoned you and didn't want you. Right. And because of Simon's father's hatred and rejection, he grew up believing that he's not worthy of love because he's not perfect. He grew up believing that he's not worthy of love because he's not perfect. And so, because of this, he vows to never marry, swearing that he will never sire an heir, mostly despite his father. So you can kind of get a sense at this point of how this is going to start impacting the plot, especially because this is a romance story.

Speaker 1:

Okay, so step number three is to think about the present day flaws, actions and behaviors that the traumatic event and that wound and that internal obstacle resulted in. So for Simon, he does not participate in the social season and he travels often to avoid attachment. He's a bit of a rake, but he's still a good guy. He's just not into attachment and doesn't want to get married. Then, when he meets the heroine of the story, daphne Bridgerton, and they enter into a fake relationship, he's forced to ultimately come face to face with the toughest choice of all. So either stick to his vow to spite his father or he can choose his own version of happiness instead. So that's what the plot forces him to do, and then by the end, he does end up choosing his own happiness. So he has shed that inner obstacle, he's lessened the effect that that traumatic event and that wound has on his life and he finds happiness because of it. So hopefully you can see how going through those three steps or answering those three questions can really help you start developing a great backstory for your character.

Speaker 1:

Now, speaking of doing the work to actually develop your character's backstory, something that I like to do for myself and with the writers I work with is to write a scene that you know only you're going to see. But it's a scene of that wounding event or that traumatic event happening. So write that out on a page. This can be a really great way to explore a character's past and see them in that context when this wound got created and they develop that specific fear. So this can give you better insight into who they are as a whole person, rather than just that version that you've created to serve the story you're telling from page one on. You can also kind of work backwards with this.

Speaker 1:

So let's say that you have, you know, some idea of the character that you want to write about in the present day. Start with who they are to you now, or who they are from page one on, and think about what past events might have influenced the way they are today. This will help you create justification for some of your choices, which in turn will start to give you the whole story of that character's experience, instead of just what we see from page one to the end. So again, there's no right or wrong way or no right or wrong time to develop a character's backstory. It's what works best for you and your process. And you know, sometimes ideas come to us one way where, let's say, you'll know everything about a character's backstory from the ideation phase. Other times you'll have to go back through and develop or flesh out your character's backstory through revisions.

Speaker 1:

So before I let you go, let's quickly recap what we talked about in today's episode. We talked about what backstory is. So this is everything that happens before the story starts on page one, and we talked about it being important because it influences everything that happens in your story, from the plot events to your character's motivations, to your ability to manage your thematic subtext. So that's key point one. Key point number two is that there are three things you'll want to flesh out, or three ingredients, to properly develop your character's backstory. You'll want to flesh out their wound.

Speaker 1:

So this is an event that causes psychological or emotional pain and gives birth to a very strong belief or fear that it could happen again. So that's ingredient number one. Ingredient number two is their inner obstacle. So this is that outdated worldview or misbelief that's born from that wounding event and it's what is still impacting your character from the time the story starts on page one, until they learn that lesson. And then the third thing you'll want to think about is their current behavior and motivations based on that inner obstacle. So how will they behave? How will they make choices and take actions that can show the reader that they're very afraid of this situation coming to pass again? So they don't want to relive that wounding event, they don't want their inner obstacle to prove true. So they have these behaviors and motivations and beliefs that show up in the present day story, based on the wound in the inner obstacle, and really result in an unmet need.

Speaker 1:

So that's key point number two, the three ingredients you need. And then key point number three is actually a recommended exercise. So I recommend writing out the scene from your character's past that caused that wound. So what was that traumatic experience? Write it out as a scene and you know it doesn't have to go in your novel or be shared with anybody, it's just for you to really get to know your character outside of the frame that you've built from page one to the end. So hopefully you now feel like you are well equipped to develop your character's backstory. And now you have those three key ingredients to developing character backstory that you could put in your writing toolbox and hopefully develop stronger, more three-dimensional characters.

Speaker 1:

So that's it for today's episode. Thank you so much for tuning in and for showing your support. If you're an Apple user, I'd really appreciate it if you took a few seconds to leave a rating and a review. Your ratings and reviews tell Apple that this is a podcast that's worth listening to and in turn, your reviews will help get this podcast in front of more fiction writers, just like you. As always, I'll be back next week with a brand new episode full of actionable tips, tools and strategies to help you become a better writer and craft a story you're proud of. Until then, happy writing.

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