Peeling Away the Layers

How much of a character’s backstory should a writer know?  I’m not talking about the main character whose history, even though not always a necessary part of the story, is something you would have in your mind.  I mean the secondary characters.

I’m in the process of re-writing a large portion of a novel and found myself drawn to a secondary character whose role in the story is key but limited.  But then I got wondering about her, about her relationship with her dad (who is also a small character in the book).  Who raised her?  When did she first decide to turn her back on her legacy?  I wonder if this is how it starts when authors write short stories about characters in their novels because I can totally see a short story in the works for Gabrielle.

But what I found when I resumed writing her scenes is that the whole backstory question added a component to her that I had been missing.  She took on new life.  All the questions about her that I’d figured out in my mind, even though what I reveal to the reader is only ten percent of what I know about her, filled her out and made her real.

I do character profiles, internal and external, for the main characters in my stories.  There are lots of details about these people that you may never need but when it comes time for them to make a decision, even if it’s as simple as what they order in a restaurant, it helps to know them inside out.

But I get lazy when it comes to the other guys, the minor characters.  My light bulb moment may have changed that.  Even if it’s not a full blown character profile, I think I will be spending some time with all the faces in my book to look into their backstory, peel away their layers, so that they are real each time they hit the page.

12 Responses to Peeling Away the Layers

  1. Secondary characters should often be well planned for two reasons, one – they can often get their own spin off based on number two – they often become the ‘show stealer’ and it can happen often in the writing world. So know them well if you write them in. 😉

  2. You might not have to do the research so much for smaller characters but having a key idea about thier history is something thats worth doing. It might only be things like what jobs have they done, work experience alongside some hobbies, but you’d be amazed at the skills that can be tapped into this way.

    Great blog post and one that I think identifies that no matter who people are in our own lives, be they minor or major, they do have a backstory that can be every bit as interesting. I’m currently getting my Grandad to write a journal that asks all sorts of questions about him and I’m surprised at some of the things coming out like how he spent the second world war in the RAF in Karachi.

    • I couldn’t agree more about people’s backstories. I regret that I didn’t record my grandfather’s story of the war and meeting my grandmother. Thanks, Gareth.

  3. I am horrible at planning out my characters…they’re in my head but I get bored trying to write it all out. I’ll get pic and do a basic profile of my main characters but I am sadly delinquent in profiling anyone else.

    • The picture is something I’ve never done. Can never find a picture that fits the image in my head of my characters. Doesn’t stop me from trying, though. 🙂 Thanks, Angela.

  4. Hmmm… that got me thinking. I guess I band characters – primary, secondary and tertiary.

    I find that back stories for primary and secondary are great for ‘un-sticking’ me if I don’t where to take the plot forward. So character back-story can be a safety net for us pantzers.

    As for tertiary characters – they are almost just moving scenery, so I wouldn’t bother with any background for them, except when something, call it intuition, tickles the back of my brain…

  5. The more you know about your characters, the more they spark to life on the page. This is true for all of them – whether main or secondary. Give them the respect they deserve, even if they’re not in the spotlight.
    Great post, Marianne.

  6. I’m with you, I don’t spend a lot of time developing the backstory (in my own mind at least) of the minor characters. That’s probably something I should dive into more. Some of my favorite books/series are because of the amazing secondary characters.

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