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“The backstory is the character’s DNA.”

This quote from book coach and author Jennie Nash is one of my faves. I find it inordinately insightful and helpful when developing characters and thinking about how to handle backstory.

It is simple, but genius. It just makes so much sense!

We are, after all, the product of our pasts, aren’t we? What we have experienced – good and bad – makes us the people we are today. It informs how we act and react, how we think, how we feel and what we believe. And the same is true for the characters we develop and write.

If a character is lacking in self-esteem or confidence, the writer must know why. What has made the character this way? If the author creates a character who is defensive or aloof or overconfident, again in order to really understand that character the author must know why.

I am in the process of developing my cast of characters for my WIP – and Jennie Nash’s quote is very much on my mind. I realise that I will get to know my characters more fully as I work my way through the various drafts. But in order to start my first draft, I need to know them well enough to know how they might act and react and why. I also need to know how they all came to “meet” – how and why their lives intersected.

Simply, I need to know their backstories.

The why is the most important element, I believe. And this is the reason that these backstories are so important. Not so I can drop in large slabs of actual backstory (which usually slows down the story and is often dull) but so I can really understand them. What has happened in their lives up to this point will determine how they will act and react now. It will be their DNA.

So I’ve been busy writing biographies for each member of my cast – outlining key events that have shaped their lives and made them the people they are now. Most of this information won’t make it into the actual story – not directly anyhow – but if I do my job well, it will be reflected in what my characters’ say, how they think, what they do. (That’s the cunning plan, anyhow.) I am even doing biographies for three characters that died thirteen years before my story starts.

Obsessive, much?


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