We all love a well-written character, don’t we? For me, there’s nothing worse than a story with a great plot that never pulls me in because I can’t relate to or sympathize with the characters. I can’t count the number of times I put a book down because the two-dimensional characters weren’t believable enough to me. If I don’t care about what happens to anyone in a story, that story won’t keep me until the end and worse, I won’t recommend it to anyone else. If the former is not true of most of your audience, the latter certainly is.
So how do you avoid the trap of flat characters who fail to draw a reader’s interest? The most crucial thing you can do happens before you write your story: Write your main characters’ backstories. A backstory is another way of saying your character’s history or background. The level of detail is up to you but as a general rule, the more important a character, the more involved his or her backstory should be.
You don’t have to include all of the backstory in your main story but it does provide a wealth of resources to draw on. Bits and pieces of it can be revealed in flashbacks or dialogue, enough to pique the reader’s curiosity to learn the entire story. Read on for the six major reasons you need to write a backstory before you can write your main characters’ stories.
Help readers make a connection with your character.
Plot is important. Setting is important. None of it matters without characters that matter. In Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card famously wrote, “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.”
It is the same way for your readers. They don’t have to like your characters. No one liked Darth Vader, but everybody wanted to know how he turned from good to evil.
Your readers may not empathize with your character, but they have to understand him.
Give your characters motivation.
If you’ve ever watched Game of Thrones or read A Song of Ice And Fire, the series of books the show is based on, you know that a character doesn’t have to be loved to be intriguing. Queen Cersei is a masterful character who has suffered more pain than most of us can imagine and inflicted even more on her enemies. Still, you can almost feel sorry for her when you realize she’s battling her own demons, not all of her own making. I said “almost”.
Shed light on what has shaped character’s personality, history, relationships.
Write out events that played a significant role in how your character came to be the person he or she is today. A lost love? A betrayal? A mentor who inspired? Anything that impacted, changed or even solidified that person’s worldview should be included.
Add richness to the story.
Stories are about people and people are not always rational to others but they are usually quite rational to themselves. This is where a person’s history and background come into play. To a reader, it might seem illogical that someone who suffered through war as a child would become a mercenary but what if that was that character’s way of moving from feeling powerless to feeling in control of her own destiny?
Slip pieces of your backstory into your main story.
As I mentioned earlier, slipping some of your backstory into your main story makes for a logically cohesive tale. It also provides a lot of material you’ve already written so you don’t have to stop the flow of your story to add emotional impact. You, the writer, already know why someone is determined to bring another character to justice. Now you’ve got to let the reader in on it, piece by piece.
Make your characters multidimensional.
I love superhero movies, both Marvel and DC but one thing Marvel does better is characterization. The heroes are imperfect and complex, the villains are somewhat sympathetic. Make sure your characters aren’t simply acting according to type. Give them a compelling reason for everything they do.
Do you write backstory for your characters? If so, what do you think it brings to your story? Let me know in the comments and thanks for reading!