Key to the Craft – Writing Character Backgrounds

I do not know, but have often wondered, whether visual artists ever do personality sketches of their subjects before creating the visual image. Does the paint or pencil artist consider the history and psychological make-up of the subject about to be painted or drawn? I would like to know.

Meanwhile most fiction writers spend some sort of time outlining backgrounds, histories, and family lineages before ever sitting down to write an actual story. But many amateurs skip this step, assuming that the words inside their head will do the work that sketches and outlines might otherwise cover. For my part I have written plenty of stories without drafting character histories. You have never read any of them, however, because none of them are any good . . .

I suspect there are a few reasons that beginning writers don’t draft character histories. For one thing it seems like a lot of work that no one is ever going to see. It’s a lot of time spent making up useless information that goes to waste. The joy, we tell ourselves, is in the discovery of writing the story.

But writing character histories is an important part of the story writing process (and it really is a lot of fun). Consider how much time you have spent sitting idly at your computer, or with pad of paper in hand, not sure of what to say because, frankly, you don’t have any idea who your character is. Knowing a character’s intimate thoughts, their passions and desires, fears, issues, mental health status, physical ailments, love life, place in the hierarchy of their family, position at work, type of job, mode of transport, favorite dessert, etc. adds up in the creative subconscious so that once you do sit to write that story, the wealth of their background is at your immediate disposal. With the work all done up front (in terms of knowing your subject) you are free to draft the story you were meant to write.

If you have never tried to write a character history consider the following exercise. Write your own history as if you were a character in a work of fiction. The details of your life, which you know better than anyone, are the exact sort of things you would imagine for a completely fictional character. Every interesting and sordid detail should be there. Not each and every day of a life lived, but rather the curious points. As you examine your life from the outside you begin to see things that excite your senses, rev the pulse, and when you come across those things you know you’re getting it right. Write about the things you don’t like about yourself as much as the things you do like. Remember that writing is about truth and honesty, and by getting down to the gritty things you are walking that razor’s edge that you hope will appear later in your fiction. My bet is that a single afternoon spent sketching out your life as a character will open the floodgates for future character sketches in all of your stories for the rest of your career. And while you will never use every detail in the sketch, you will have the confidence in knowing that the full palette is there for you, like a painter, to add and mix any color, in any shade, for just the right image.

Here, for example, are some character notes I wrote for Jillian – a character in one of my first novels:

Jillian Marie Kircher (Barnes) – 31
Pastor’s Wife – Mother (Kylie Jean – 4)
“The Faithless” “The Ghost”

She is the most difficult to write about.

You want to demonize her. Cheater, unfaithful, adulteress. Do you understand what motivates her? Jillian’s parents divorced when she was ten. The event left her stoic and emotionally unbalanced. At her worst she is suspicious, moody, depressed. But she has her bright side. She is kind to others. She dotes on Kylie. Let’s go back to her earliest years, before she was ten . . . Jillian is a complaisant child. You can tell already looking at her in her crib. She’s quiet. Of course, she is asleep, but see her awake. She looks around, but is quiet. When she cries at all it’s the hoarse rasp of a sick child. Nothing shrill, nothing red-faced and bloody murder. Her expression is wide-eyed; she looks shocked. She does not readily smile. She watches. It’s as if she knows, over and over again, there will be disasters in her life.

This is not the whole sketch. It goes on into her adulthood, into her marriage and the birth of her child. It also covers the day her mother killed her father, the realization of the disaster she had always sensed from the earliest days. In the sketch a psychological profile emerges.

The entire sketch of Jillian is fourteen pages long. Handwritten in a composition book as one of six (one for each of the primary characters) I wrote before starting the novel. The first try of the book took three years and ultimately wasn’t the book I wanted to write, but the sketches remain, and I will write a new version one day, prepared as I am with all of the characters detailed and standing by.

I encourage all fiction writers to write up character sketches. Whether an entire life or just the details of what is going on at the time of the story, the things we learn through this process are the things we need to know to create memorable stories. Character, after all, is key. Character is really all that we care about.

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10 comments on “Key to the Craft – Writing Character Backgrounds

  1. MishaBurnett says:

    I don’t tend to write anything down about my characters, but I do know their histories pretty well. By the time that I am actually writing the characters talking I have spent so much time working on them in my head that I feel like I know them personally.

    • emperort says:

      Misha, is your process to meditate on the characters until you know them well enough to start writing about them? Do you base them on real people or try to create them from scratch (or from a notion that inspired the story idea?) I actually create my characters from scratch, and I think that really slows me down! If I just wrote about Bob at work and named him Jim I’d probably be a lot further along 😉

      • MishaBurnett says:

        I tend to base characters on people I know and then let them mutate from there. I have an advantage in that I have met a lot of really odd people in my life. I can’t think of any character who made it into my work in a form that would be recognizable, but they all have a core of someone I’ve met, or at least read a lot about.

  2. I’m beginning to see your point. As I’ve just started writing a story from my head I’ve realized as I go along I’m starting to stop and write down more and more information about my main character. I’ve also realized there are some aspects to her that I’ve actually got to research. Let the games begin! 🙂

    • emperort says:

      Wonderful, Linda,

      Games indeed. Sometimes the research takes on a life of its own and then you’re off for days or weeks learning all kinds of unexpected things. This is one more reason that writing is a craft, and time-consuming. There’s so much to explore.

  3. lpaigewrites says:

    I think this is also a great technique for preventing any continuity issues you may run into while writing. If you forget something about your character, you can just reference the sketch and don’t need to sift through the rest of the work. Excellent tip!

    • emperort says:

      Thank you, LP, and you are right. I often referenced my notes when writing the novel. Sometimes I needed to be reminded what the character was like in a particular instance, and sometimes I was looking for a clue about how they would handle a situation that was new to them as well as me. Also worth noting: sometimes the character unfolds to be quite different from what is written in the background. For example, Jillian never did “dote on Kylie” and in fact it was quite the opposite to such an extreme that Jillian ended up in jail.

  4. Great post!

    An author usually needs to know much more than ever appears on the page, and that goes for plot as well as character development. I’m a huge fan of character histories…or as I call them “character profiles,” which cover not only major life milestones, but also aspects of personality and attitudes toward a number of topics.

    For what it’s worth, here are the questions I tend to answer when delving into the psyche of my characters: http://david-michael-williams.com/2012/06/14/how-to-make-a-person/

    What’s interesting to me is that the “finished product” always changes from that initial profile because characters grow from scene to scene. But without that initial foundation, I’m afraid most of my characters would fall flat during the first draft.

    • emperort says:

      Nice comment, David.

      I have a different sort of trouble I’ve discovered. I am too careful with my main characters. For some reason I use kid gloves with them and they end up being less appealing than they were in my imagination. It’s something I’m painfully aware of and trying to overcome.

      I’ll have more to say, about many things, but I started a new job this week and my time and energy are being readjusted.

      I’ll be back soon.

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