Crafting Characters – Where Did I Come From?

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.

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “Crafting Characters – Where Did I Come From?

  1. Well, as promised, I responded (at length, I’m afraid):
    http://u-town.com/collins/?p=2434

  2. I’m working on a short story where this woman has a definite psychological disorder. She thinks she’s a completely different person, and I had to come up with a reason why she thinks this. I talked to a man who has a psychology degree, and he even told me that half of the time, psychologists make a guess much like I was doing for my story.

    As I mentioned on Anthony’s post, most of the time, I don’t have a definitive background. I kind of know what happened to them as a background, but some of the time, they develop themselves along the way, and I try to make it flow better in the revision process.

    As I think back over it, I do more planning than I realize. I try to give my characters free will to do what they wish, but as you mention, there has to be some kind of back story even if the readers don’t know what it is.

    • That;s really what I was trying to illustrate – even if you don’t mention back storym, or pre-plan your characters or plot, the character’s actions still need to make sense. They need to be believable. And the reader needs to feel that they can guess what a given character will do in a specofoc situation with at least some measure of accuracy, regardless of how damaged the character may be.

      • That’s very true. I read a lot of novels by Dean Koontz, and one novel comes to mind called Whispers. The antagonist is tortured by his mother as a child which drives him to murderous tendencies in this novel, specifically against the woman who he thinks is his mother reincarnate. Even though, it’s kind of cliched, Dean Koontz drives us to almost sympathize with the murderer because we’re in his head during him reliving these memories.

        I don’t know if I mentioned it to you, but that interview with characters was very helpful with not only this but getting in the mind of the character.

      • I’m glad it helped. 🙂

        Dean Koontz is awesome at character development, and at writing sympathetc antagonists. A friend of mine introduced his writing to me many, many years ago with the book ‘Lightning’, and I was hooked on his style.

      • I always think of it that characters act in character, even when they act out of character. What I mean is, if someone is violent, or sarcastic, or timid, of manipulative, or clueless, he or she will be (so to speak) good or evil in that way (violent, sarcastic, etc.).

        I used to watch the show Dallas, and I remember there were times when J.R. (who was the villain, more or less, completely sneaky and dishonest and manipulative) did something actually nice and helpful, but he still always did it in a sneaky and manipulative way. That way, he was still recognizeably him.

  3. Emerald, I will mention that, if you’re talking about multiple personalities or something like it, that there is a segment of the multiple personality community (based on what I’ve read online) that feels this is not actually a disorder and that this is a perfectly valid way for a person to be.

    I won’t rehash all the arguments, which can get quite heated. You can see, I’m sure, the analogy to being gay, which was officially classified as a psychological disorder until fairly recently.

    This is true of people with Asperger’s as well, many of whom don’t see it as any kind of disorder.

    It may not apply to your story, of course. It definitely does to mine (but ssshhhhhh, that’s kind of a spoiler, so don’t tell anybody 🙂 ).

    IAC, I would be very interested to read your story when it’s done.

  4. I won’t tell anyone! 😉

    I still have a long ways to go on my story. It’s only partially done and I’m still working through what it would be like to completely forget one’s identity. I’ve been researching Dissociative Fugue which is actually along the lines of what I’m thinking my character suffers from. It’s hard though. I’ve never really dealt with something like this before, and it’s entirely new to me!

    I know. The arguments can get quite heated, but I see what you’re saying.

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