Give Your Characters a Life!

We’ve all been there.

You’re sitting at your desk, fingers flying across your keyboard. Your hero and heroine are in the middle of a conflict and…wait. How does he react when she turns to walk away from him?

Every action our characters make is determined by their background. Their backstory.

Let’s look at the hero in my September release from Love Inspired as an example.

Nate Colby is a Civil War veteran. He had been part of the Union Cavalry during the last couple years of the war. During one campaign, he was ordered to move a wagon load of explosives out of a burning barn. He hitched a team of mules to the wagon, but the mules balked. They refused to pull the wagon out of the barn.

The explosion nearly killed Nate, but more importantly, the experience was the beginning of a series of events that convinced him he lacks something in his makeup that other men possess. Something inside him causes him to fail every time he attempts something important.

It also caused him to hate and distrust mules.

Fast forward twelve years. During the intervening time Nate’s view of his shortcomings has been reinforced over and over. His parents died while he and his brother were in the army. His sister disappeared into the west and became a prostitute. His brother’s children were left orphans when Nate wasn’t able to save his brother and sister-in-law from the 005house fire that killed them.

And his nephew’s favorite friend is his pet mule, Loretta.

Now Nate is left with his nephew and nieces to care for, but the past still haunts him. It affects every move, every decision. And as the story progresses, the reader gets glimpses of Nate’s backstory. It unfolds when it needs to in order to give Nate’s character depth.

But Nate’s backstory is so much more important than to make his character interesting to the reader.

Without knowing his backstory, I would be at a loss whenever he appears in a scene or when there is a plot twist.

For example, the heroine, Sarah, is a crusader, seeking to save the poor lost prostitutes in Deadwood. She is extremely naïve and idealistic at the beginning of the story, and enthusiastically recruits Nate to help her.

How does he respond? We – as readers – already know this part of Nate’s backstory. Remember the sister who disappeared twelve years ago? Nate’s experience with his sister gives him an insight into the life of a saloon girl that Sarah doesn’t have. He not only keeps her enthusiasm grounded in reality, but he agrees to help her, even though he’s afraid the plan is doomed if he has any part in it.

001Nate’s backstory drives his decision to help Sarah and his feelings about that decision. It affects all of his actions as they carry out Sarah’s plans to help one of the soiled doves in the mining camp. And it provides the starting point for the change his character goes through in the course of the story.

 

Writing my character’s backstory is a major part of getting to know my characters before I ever start writing my stories. It gives them life!

What about you? How far into your characters’ back stories to you go when you’re developing your next book?

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2 thoughts on “Give Your Characters a Life!

  1. Hi Jan,

    Great post!

    I try to go back to childhood to see what formed them to be the way they are. No parent, parent lacking skills to care, alcoholic, or whatever formed them. In my WIP my heroine is raised by her dad and three older brothers. I think my childhood shaped me, and I figure it works that way for my characters, too.

    Have a great weekend!

    • Hi Jackie! You’re so right – everything in our character’s life affects them, from childhood on up.

      You have a great weekend, too!

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