Last week I talked about the importance of having authentic characters, and shared an example of how to interview characters to get a better understanding of their personalities. I’ll continue talking about crafting characters this week, but this time from the perspective of a character’s backstory.
Much like real people, characters don’t spring fully formed out of the ether as heroes, villains, or something in between. There’s a reason they have the personalities that they do. For example:
Was your hero an underpriveleged child? Was his beloved father a cop? Did his horrible aunt and uncle force him to live in a cupboard?
Was your villain tormented as a child? Was he a spoiled rich kid? Was his innocent father shot by a crooked cop? Was his father a villain?
These are important details to know, and it can be worth writing a brief summary of your character’s life before you start writing. That way you can also make sure that it doesn’t end up like this:
- Bob grew up with loving parents. He had 3 siblings – all sisters, and all older than him. He was always his mother’s “little boy” and was spoiled by her and his sisters for most of his childhood. He had a great relationship with his father, and they spent a lot of time fishing and throwing a football around.
- It was really hard for Bob to leave his family home and go off to college, but he really wanted to be a lawyer. He spent every break with his parents, and one or another of his sisters would often visit as well.
- When Bob graduated, he went to work at a law firm, and was incredibly successful.
- Bob decided to become a serial killer, and started hunting down and killing prostitutes.
Hands up if you think that makes sense.
Hands up if you think it’s ridiculous.
You don’t need a degree in psychology to understand that a well-adjusted guy with a Supportive family, no childhood trauma, and great prospects is highly unlikely to turn into a serial killer for no reason. (Please don’t give me real life examples of where this has happened. Real life doesn’t have to make sense – fiction does.) If you were writing this summary of Bob’s life, no doubt you’d either change some of the details of his upbringing, or add an instigating event that triggered this psychopathic/sociopathic behaviour.
On the other hand, have you ever read or written a story where the story/character arc goes something like this:
- A serial killer is targeting prostitutes. The cops/FBI/PI/random hero has a limited amount of time to figure out whodunnit and stop the next murder.
- Clues left at the murder scenes lead the investigators to believe that the crimes are being committed by someone with a background in law. Further investigation leads the investigators to realise that each of the killings happens in the 24 hours after a prominent criminal lawyer (Bob) loses a case. And he’s just lost another one.
- They investigate Bob, and he goes into hiding. The investigators know that, despite the danger, he’ll kill again. (That’s what serial killers do.)
- The investigators talk to Bob’s family, who tell them Bob was a normal kid who loved his sisters, and played football with his father. They’re horrified to think that he could be involved in the killings, and try to convince the investigators of his innocence.
- The investigators eventually track Bob down and catch him just in time - while he’s torturing his latest victim. They manage to save the girl, but have to shoot Bob in the process. He dies crying for his mother, which is even more poignant/disturbing when juxtaposed with the near-dead body of the prostitute.
This seems like a fairly reasonable (if cliche) crime story, but the question remains: Why did Bob turn into a serial killer? And why prostitutes?
Even if you don’t explain the reasons why your hero is a hero, or your villain is a villain, make sure you know what they are. No one does anything without a motive, and everyone eventually asks, “Where did I come from?” Don’t let poor Bob take the fall without an explanation.