Despite all the stuff I’ve written about characters in the last (almost) decade, I’ve never actually explained how I come up with my characters’ backstories.
It’s something I just kind of do without really thinking, so I’ve never had to explain the process before.
However, there are several key steps that really help me think about my characters as people, and turn them into someone that I really care about, and also that my readers really care about.
Creating people that my readers care about is something that’s important to me. Many reviewers remark on how much they love or can relate to particular characters, the most popular being Fayth from What Happens in… and Javi from Afterlife Calls.
They’re very different people that I love for different reasons, but what matters is the fact that they have something resonates with readers.
So here are some of the techniques I use to flesh out my characters when I’m introducing someone new into a series or starting a new one.
I love psychology, and very few months go by where I haven’t read an article on new psychological research, done some sort of training, or read another book on it.
I’ve actually read more books on psychology this year than I have novels. That’s really unusual for me, but I’m finding it really enjoyable, and it’s helping me on my journey of self-improvement.
These learnings inevitably found their way into how I write my characters. I’ve always taken a character-centric approach to novel writing, because for me, the story is always in how relationships sustain the challenges of everyday life—and ghost hunting, in the case of Afterlife Calls.
Relationships, and characters, are at the heart of what I write, so the plot is often weaved around who they are and what they want to achieve. To understand what these things are and how they manifest it requires an understanding of psychology.
Their purpose in the book
Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how much you like a character, or want them in the book, they just don’t fit.
I’ve talked in a couple of episodes of The Writer’s Mindset about the fact that in the Afterlife Calls series there were originally three children in the Morgan family. There was Josh, the eldest brother, Abigail, the youngest sister, and also a middle child called Rochelle who was about 10 years old. Rochelle had a name fairly early on—even earlier than some of the main characters.
However, the more I fleshed out the plot of the story, the more I realised Rochelle didn’t really have a purpose. Nor was her personality coming out as strongly as it was for the other characters.
I hadn’t written anything at this point—I was still contemplating ideas—so it didn’t hurt massively to cut her out because I wasn’t emotionally invested in her as a character.
There have been times where I’ve had to cut a character because their purpose in the book didn’t serve the wider plot or series, though. That’s much more uncomfortable.
I had to cut most of Jack’s scenes from What Happens in New York, for example, because they didn’t fit what I wanted to happen to him later in the universe.
It also felt like I was putting him in because I wanted him there. And he was too much of an antagonist for him to then become a love interest in the spin off, Hollywood Gossip. Knowing what direction I wanted to take him in really helped keep things in perspective. In the short term it was frustrating, but in the long term, it paid off.
If you’re not sure about if your character has a purpose in the story, I’d consider how they affect your plot and also how they impact your main character.
If they don’t contribute to moving your plot along, there’s a high chance they don’t really need to be there.
Everyone should have something going on in their own life even if they’re just a side character.
I often use romance novels as an example, because in nearly every one I’ve read the main character’s best friend or sibling is usually preparing to get married, about to have a baby, or having some sort of relationship issue.
This subplot influences, reflects, or mirror’s what’s happening in the main character’s life, often without them realising until the end.
It doesn’t require lots of scenes about this subplot if you don’t want, either. It could be a discussion point rather than something that we see in the book, or explored while the side character helps the main character with their problems. This makes your side characters feel more human and stops them from being nothing more than a prop that assists your main character…and is really boring and transparent to read.
How your main character interacts with them, and responds to their problems, can give them new depth, too.
It’s an inevitable part of being a writer that we’ll channel some of our own histories into our books.
Sometimes we’ll do this intentionally, and sometimes it will be accidental, but I do believe that books and poetry and everything else we write will always reflect our beliefs, our opinions, our fears, and our hopes.
Even how you write your antagonist, if they feel or believe something completely different to you, is still a commentary on what’s important to you in your life.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing this. If anything, it’s a strength, because it means you’re writing something that matters to you. That makes for stronger writing. You’ll also attract readers who also care about similar things to you.
In What Happens in Paphos, I channeled some of the grief I was experiencing at the time into the book. I also chose to show different sides of grief that we often don’t see from a female perspective, such as anger. This reflected both my emotions at the time and my belief that we need to see more representation of female rage/anger in popular culture. (And, thanks to recent shows like She Hulk, we are.)
Organic evolution through character interactions
If you’ve done the work to turn your characters into people, eventually they’re going to surprise you.
Sometimes they’ll behave unexpectedly, they may not have the chemistry with the love interest you’d planned for them, or they may react to a situation in a completely unexpected way.
This is something I’ve found a lot in my writing, particularly as a series progresses.
That’s why even though I do outline my books these days, I still treat them very flexibly, because I know that nothing ever goes according to plan. So if I tried to stick to an outline too rigidly, the only person who’d suffer would be me. And I suffer enough. Let’s not make life harder than it needs to be.
There you have it!
This may seem really simple and really obvious to you, or it may be a bunch of stuff you’ve never considered before.
For me, it really boils down to understanding psychology and making sure every character has a purpose in a book. If you can be brutal about those two things, you’re already setting yourself up for success.
If you’d like to find out more about writing backstories, and get some of those psychology and plotting tips to enhance your characters’ backstories and purpose in your book, I’ve got a new course called How to Write Brilliant Backstories, that’s just what you need.
How to Write Brilliant Backstories is available now—with some extra goodies to really help you make the most of what you come up with.