Friday, August 7, 2009

Background Check

Have you done a background check on your characters? Do you know what their life was like 5 years ago? What about their childhood? Their last girlfriend? Who their best friend in high school was? How they came to be living where they are?

As an author I think it's important to know the history of your characters. It's what gives them depth. I think most authors do a good job of showing the physical things about a character. You know, hair color, height, eye color, rock hard abs. Oops. How did that slip in there? *grins*

I think the emotional past is much much harder to create. Think about your own life. You have things in your past that not very many people know about. Things that make you who you are. Things that make you more sensitive to specific situations, or things that make you more empathetic, or things that help you "get" others. These "things" drive how you act, how you react, and how you live your life.

In order to create believable, three-dimensional characters, they must have this past too. And you must know it. Not only that, you must be able to convey it in the writing. Their decisions should be consistent with their past. Their reactions must be believable and authentic.

Without a background check, the characters may be hawt, but not much else. And since we've all been watching Dating In The Dark (you know you watched. Spill...spill...), we know that sometimes how someone looks isn't the deciding factor. Sometimes it's what they do. Don't do. Say. Don't say. Believe. Don't believe. It's WHO they are.

So in your writing, make sure you know who your characters are. Do that background check.

What do you think? Do you fingerprint your characters? How do you log their past? Me? I keep everything really nice and tidy in this huge filing cabinet called my brain. ROTFL. What about you?

24 comments:

Tami said...

I love a character with a background, the kind that spices things up.. yet keeps you on the edge wondering.

You hurry to finish, yet dread finding you're half way through your book and realize DANG it I NEVER WANT IT TO END!

Yes I like the spicy ones!
heh heh.

Lisa and Laura said...

We know far too much about most of our characters. Sometimes we plan it out, but sometimes it just sort of appears as we write. I'd like to think that we do a good job creating our characters there are a few in particular who I'm really proud of. But I love it when you do these posts because they're such a good reminder that there's always more that you can do with characterization. Thanks E!

Abby said...

Hey, I use that filing cabinet too. Um, but it's mine, not yours. :) I have all their background info in there. I keep thinking I should get it all down on paper, but yeah. Don't think that's ever going to happen.

Scott said...

I'm with Lisa and Laura on this way. I know far, far too much about my characters - some planned, some spontaneous decisions while writing.

I always chart out family background - parents divorced, two brothers, one sister, etc. - when developing the characters and even go so far as to list favorite books, movies, types of music they listen too, favorite menu item at cheap Mexican, adult beverage of choice, and a few other things as well. I do this in an Excel worksheet that I print out and post next to the computer for easy reference. Background and choice of adult beverage are important.

Great post.

S

christine said...

You know I love my tortured characters - and they wouldn't be that w/o a really well thought out past. A lot of times my stories/charaters are born of different writing exercises or short pieces that delve into something from their past - something that shaped who they are. And since Iam really into emotions - yeah, I love that part the most.

Another great post!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Background check! What a great way to describe it.
The best one I've done is to interview my main characters by asking them to tell me about their childhoods. So they spoke in first person and I took notes. And, boy, did my antagonist let loose. That character really gained depth as a result.
Thanks for the reminder. It's a good one.

M. Dunham said...

Characters become people when their past starts fusing with their present and future. I absolutely believe in knowing their backgrounds.

Most of the time, though, they don't open up about their pasts to me until we've had a chance to journey together for a bit.

Suzanne said...

Unhappily I know too much and then want to share it with everyone. That means it ends up in my book as BACKSTORY and i get "too much backstory" from reviewers.

Yuck. Learning, learning, learning.

JStantonChandler said...

Hmmm, character interviews and background checks. This could get scary! Think I'll have to sit mine down and take notes :)

Happy weekend,
Jen

Novice Writer Anonymous said...

I went through exactly this in the last two weeks in July. I was writing up character bios. Writing out the things that happened to them. Who they met, where they lived, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

The challenge is my MC who's lived in the woods her whole life guarded by foul beasts. She's only 10 at the beginning of the series. When you can only go a small radius most of your life, it's a challenge to come up with things that happen.

But I'm working on it. I really don't like my main character as much as my major characters who are all older, most above 20.

But knowing these backgrounds and such and going beyond the physical is helping the writing I've done so far this month.

Character interviewing does take time. I usually only got one or two characters done in a day for all the questions I was asking. Questions like "What sorts of possessions does he/she value? Fashion? Cleanliness and hygiene?" The first two chapters of The Plot Thickens are all about questions to interrogate your characters with.

I wrote down everything in a notebook as I went. It usually took at most 1 1/2 double-sided pages to get all the information written out, but then it's all in one central place that I can reference as needed.

Amanda J. said...

I don't know everything about my characters and I need to sit down and have a nice chat with them for being so guarded. The background check is coming for me, the last one wasn't nearly in depth as it should have been. Time to figure out their faves! :D

Great post, Elana. Thanks for the reminder, I definitely need to get to know my characters some more.

Rebecca Knight said...

Great points, Elana!

In my current WIP, I made a ton of notes before I even started writing on "How they got this way," what their quirks were, fears were, and dreams were. It is helping A LOT during this first draft.

Now, if only I could go back in time, and do that for my first novel... hmmmm.

Lazy Writer said...

I agree with Suzanne! The file cabinet in my brain turns into backstory on the page. But you are right. If we don't know our characters background, we can't be consistent with their actions and reactions. Great point!

"The Beast Master" said...

What a great post! i have a few characters i'm working on, i just keep them all in an unorganized word document on my computer..
all the blog reading i've been doing lately has made me so excited to work on my own writing...i just haven't made it a priority, and don't know that i can at this time in my life...but, you're posts are soo motivating! thank you.

Aaron Polson said...

I steal a page from my "teacher's manual" and draft resumes for my characters. That and break into their homes. Funny what you can find sometimes...

Liza said...

This post is tremendous--the insightful comments you received are a great help too. There are a lot of good writers out there...

Ryan said...

I've commented on this somwhere before, but I don't remember where. Anyway, I tend to just sit down and go with it, if I don't get a feel for my character within the first ten thousand words or so I'll sit down fill out a dnd character sheet, do an interview, or a character bio to get a bit more information about them. Then go back and fix it later on in the edits and revision portion.

Stephanie Faris said...

What a good idea. I'm going to have to try that. I once had a questionnaire to fill out for characters that helped a lot but I lost it somewhere along the way.

MeganRebekah said...

I have about 7 single-spaced pages that covers the background of 5 of my main characters. It's what makes the story connect for me, knowing who each of them is and who they used to be.

ali said...

I've heard about interviewing your characters and knowing their background a thousand times. And yet, it's only today that I finally get it!

Duh!

For some reason, the way you expressed it finally reached through the gargantuan wall walnut that is my brain.

Terresa said...

Fab analogy. I'm diggin it and realizing I've got a lot of work still left to do w/my characters...

Kim Kasch said...

Fun idea. I never thought about this.

L.T. Elliot said...

I always do background checks on my characters. Then I do full scale, FBI profiling, CIA head sweeps, and throw in some Santa Claus watching just for the heck of it. Yeah...I know my characters too well.

Maureen said...

sometimes self background checking is sometimes a good idea. it will help you discover you strength and weaknesses. it is also advisable that you do a background search for a good and applicable moral attitudes that might help you

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