In order to understand a character, a reader should know why that character is the way he is, and this is where the backstory comes in. Even in real life, there is no black and white, and few people are irredeemable. Even the evilest individual has something in his life that can make him seem more real and more human, if not more sympathetic (an explanation is NOT an excuse), and no hero doesn’t have a skeleton or two in the closet, even Steve Rogers (I can’t think of any, but I’m sure he does).
Life experiences make us who we are, and the same is true for your character. That doesn’t mean he can’t be despicable. You want your reader to be glad your character gets what he deserves, whether it’s happily ever after or shot and beaten to death by rebels and getting sodomized with a bayonet while pleading for his life (not my concept–look it up). Or just sent to prison if you work for Disney. But if they don’t know why that character grew to be the person he is, they won’t be as invested in the outcome.
For everything you have your character do, or for everything he is, ask yourself why. Examples: Why did Bellamy sneak onto the drop ship (The 100, TV show – https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2661044/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1)? Why would Stefan reject his Nazi lifestyle because of a woman (Lightning, Dean Koontz – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lightning_(novel))? Why was Carrie White’s mother such a religious fanatic (Carrie, Stephen King – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrie_(novel) and https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074285/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1)? And so on.
One thing I do when working on developing a character is choose an alignment like they do in roleplaying games. For those who don’t know, alignment has two parts: Lawful/Neutral/Chaotic and Good/Neutral/Evil. There are lots of websites that explain these in detail and even help players pick their characters’ alignment. You can start with one or choose it later, but it can help channel a character’s actions, thoughts, and philosophies so he is less likely to do something out of character. It can also help you formulate that backstory. Why is Mannimarco (Elder Scrolls games) Chaotic-Evil? Why is Steve Rogers Lawful-Good?
You can also do it the other way around. The demon Sweet (Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show – https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118276/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1) has come to the mortal plane to make everyone in Sunnyvale sing and dance, but he does so in an effort to cause chaos and unrest. He’s definitely evil. But he didn’t come here for no reason: he was summoned. He is here to collect the bride he was promised when he was summoned. He even says, “I don’t make the rules.” There are rules, and he follows them to the letter, so he’s lawful. That makes him Lawful Evil.
In my Skyrim fanfiction, my hero Selene was the big hero of Skyrim, the Dragonborn, the hero of the Companions. She had a soft spot for kids and animals. She also slept around a bit and was a master thief, a rebel, and a killer. I’m not talking about bandits and random encounters. She was an actual murderer. Oh, and a werewolf. She rejected authority, bent the rules to her benefit, and was not afraid to get her hands dirty. Put all this together, and she comes out Chaotic Neutral.
Lawful characters (paladins, soldiers, police officers, judges) rarely slip, but even they might make an exception to their alignment in the right circumstances.
DISCLAIMER: I’m not saying all of these types would be lawful,
by the way. They are just examples.
If you find this person is doing too many things out of character, it’s probably time to think about changing his alignment.
Selene had relationships with some very flawed characters, including Ulfric Stormcloak, who is arguably the most controversial figure in the game. Players either love him or hate him. But no matter which side you’re on, if you look at the lore, you find he is far from two-dimensional, and I was able to use all that to give him feelings, desires other than just making Skyrim for the Nords, and helping him learn and grow as a person. Selene ultimately married Brynjolf from the Thieves Guild. The fact that he was an incurable rogue with very little backstory gave him a lot of potential, and I was able to place him and Selene in situations to develop them both, including anecdotes to reveal a little bit of how he became a high-ranking Thieves Guild member and the walking sex we all know and love.
Why is Brynjolf an incurable rogue? Why does he talk like that (for those who don’t know, he has a mild Scottish accent in a game full of people with Nordic accents)? Why, after killing a dragon all by himself, would he still reject a warrior’s braid as a reward?
In The Order of the White Guard (“OWG”), why did Peter donate his castle to the Catholic Church, and why does he hate going into the great hall? Why does Ian prefer going off alone instead of socializing with the pack? Why is Mary the Omega Wolf, and why are Don and Peter so protective of her? These questions can be answered in a paragraph or two, but the more detail you give the reader, the more he will understand your characters and the reasons for what they do.
Writing Hitler? Is the story from his point of view or someone close to him? Humanize him.
DISCLAIMER: I used him here intentionally as an extreme example. I could have as easily used Darth Vader or another irredeemable person (have you looked up the bayonet account yet?).
This is an example of the “explanation is not excuse” concept. Hitler committed unforgivable atrocities, and he was responsible for his own actions. But he has a backstory and life experiences to made him that monster. If you do research (which you should), you’ll know a lot of details from his life. Assuming you’re writing a fictional account, you can fill in the holes with your own stories and descriptions. You don’t have to make him more sympathetic. Any details you provide to make more real, whether good are bad, are beneficial to the story.
Another example: there is a song by Oysterband called “Elena’s Shoes.” ( https://genius.com/Oysterband-elenas-shoes-lyrics ) The song is a thinly veiled reference to Imelda Marcos, who was found with a thousand pairs of shoes and more than a thousand other accessories. She left most of that behind, but she brought the jewelry with her. The chorus of the song says, “Put yourself in Elena’s shoes, they wouldn’t give her time to choose. She said, ‘I’d rather die than look like a loser.'” Let’s face it. She and her husband needed to go. That doesn’t mean she wasn’t terrified when they came to get her.
Character Development in a Series
Series franchises are great for extensive character development because they can provide backstory over time. The MCU are masters at this, giving us origin stories one or two at a time and dropping hints about other characters as the overall story progresses. The Harry Potter series (J.K. Rowling – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Potter), the Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkein – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lord_of_the_Rings), any comic book or manga series, and serial novels like The Green Mile (Stephen King -https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Green_Mile_(novel)) come to mind. The same with long-running TV shows. Some of my recent favorites are The 100 (see above), NCIS Los Angeles (https://tinyurl.com/s3lc356), RWBY (https://tinyurl.com/szbpu3r), Red vs. Blue (https://tinyurl.com/yx626uxy) and the Arrowverse shows on the CW (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrowverse). All of them have many seasons, many characters, and many backstories, and after a few volumes or seasons, the reader or viewer really comes to know the characters and is completely invested in their lives. If they ship, people are overjoyed (if they don’t, people write fanfiction). If they die, the fans are devastated. They sit on the edge of their seats in suspenseful situations, and they laugh or cry right along with the characters.
OWG is the first novel in a series (I promise there will be more books), although we did treat is as a standalone novel. There are a lot of characters in the book, the but only the most prominent ones have carefully structured backstories–or for the younger ones, stories that are forming as they grow. Most of the minor characters’ backstories will evolve over the next few books and possibly some snippets, and of course, we’ll learn more about the major characters. Those backstories, in addition to the ones of the overarching villain, are a very big part of these characters’ lives and the lives of the new ones we’ll introduce in future books.
We’re working on the second book now, and we’re using those characters’ experiences as backstory. The whys are still vital, but we start to ask other questions, as well. Where have they traveled, and how did they end up in Egypt, where the story begins. How did the pack’s losses and victories affect them? What has happened in the years between the first and second books, and how have those experiences changed their lives? Peter has sons? What is the story behind that? How has Ryan come to be the strong person he wasn’t in OWG? I’m also still developing the backstories of a couple of characters who died in the first book.
We also get some insight in the vampires and see things from their side of the fence. Why do they insist that they’re not all evil? What happened to make the main vampire characters different from the mundane creatures of history, and do those experiences have anything to do with Ardis, the villain from OWG? What are they doing in Alexandria, and why are they so interested in the House of Blevins? Why does Lily make Ian her pet project? Why is Maya so determined to convince Logan she’s not evil? What seeds can we plant now that will come to fruition in future books?
Backstories in a Standalone Story
If you don’t have the luxury of developing a character over the course of several volumes, you can do it over several chapters. There’s nothing wrong with teasing the reader over a few chapters with a big reveal near the end, as long as you give them enough insight to keep them interested enough to get that far. In OWG, the prologue shows Logan, a young man being turned into a werewolf. The formal ceremony is described in detail, including a hint to the personalities of some of the main characters and their attitude toward Logan. Why was Ian chosen to bring him across instead of Aidan? Why is Logan so attracted to Amanda? Is there a potential romance here? Logan is chained to a wall, and yes, he’s afraid, but why does he seem to trust the people around him? Why are they all naked? The reader will get answers to these questions as he reads on.
The first time we meet Ardis, he’s perched on a mantle with a childlike vampire, watching a battle with a big smile on his face. Why is he with a vampire who looks like she’s eleven? Why is he enjoying himself so much during the battle? A paragraph of backstory tells who he is and atrocities he has committed. It also gives a very small hint of his personality by mentioning that he calls his attacks and massacres “paying a visit.” Why does he do these horrible things, and why does he see them as something so mundane as a visit?
Character development isn’t as detailed in short stories, of course, but you can still use a sentence or a paragraph to give some insight into the characters. In our short story, “Genie in a Bottle,” we asked why Alex grew up to be such a bully. It’s the only why in the story, and it’s enough. It doesn’t make him likable, but it does give a look into his home life, why he is so full of hatred, and why he’s so greedy.
If you want the reader to be emotionally invested in your characters, you have to be invested in them first. If someone tells you, “It’s just a fictional character,” he’s lying, or he’s just plain wrong, and his characters are probably not going to be as rich and detailed as others. Every character you create is a part of you, whether he has a lot in common with you or is completely alien.
In my roleplaying games, I’ve been told I put too much emotional investment in my characters, but to me, that is what makes them worth playing. It’s the same with the characters I write, and I recommend it as a tool for any author. These characters are your babies. You’re their creator, their god, their parent, and you have utter control over their lives. That requires great care.
Someone once asked Anne Rice if she had an emotional connection to Lestat (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Vampire_Lestat), and she told them that she was in love with him on some level. I’ve developed crushes on some of my characters, and that helps to make some very good love scenes. If you’re writing a romantic character, you have to see them as a romantic, sensual person, or the reader won’t believe it. More on love scenes in another article.
It’s not just the crushes, though. There are many more for whom I’ve developed a sisterly or motherly affection; characters I’ve wanted to smack upside the head, decapitate, or draw and quarter; and others I just wanted to party with. Some of those feelings have changed over time as I’ve gotten to know them better; and I’ve grown to love, dislike, or hate them, depending on how they write themselves.
I have created characters specifically because I wanted to hate them. In OWG it was Pippa. I took the cliché of the childlike vampire that any vampire fan worth his salt despises. She started out as a happy child with loving parents. They were killed when Ardis attacked her village, and he took her under his wing–translate to abducted her and turned her when she was just a kid. Very tragic backstory, and suddenly the reader can identify with her. That lasts about five minutes, because from there on out, her education was from an insane and evil elder vampire. The love she had experienced as a child was completely forgotten, and she took delight in being sadistic. And she was perfectly sane. The result was a character even more despicable than Ardis himself.
The overall theme of the series still stands: the better you know your characters, the better your readers will. Ask why, and develop an emotional connection, whether it’s positive or negative. Become invested in them, because the more invested the reader is in your characters, the more likely he will read to the end and want more. Use the space you have, and remember that even a sentence or paragraph can provide insight into your character.
As always, questions and comments are welcome and encouraged. Happy writing!