I’m working on some new characters for a feature I’m writing this fall, and am reminded that character backstory is like trying to get to know a person and they keep ignoring you, so you have to make up things about them until they tell you the truth.
It’s worth it, though. Good character details separates the great from the average. For example, a man yearning over a woman is not nearly as interesting as a poor North Dakotan building himself up to a mysterious millionaire in order to throw extravagant parties in order to lure the woman behind the green light back to him. Specificity of backstory and circumstance can create exquisite tragedy that would not exist had you only known Gatsby as a millionaire with this thing for a married woman.
Here are 6 steps to creating a detailed character backstory:
Step One: Archetype and Description
You can’t mold a blank page into a character, so start with SOMETHING. Whether that’s an archetype or a real-life inspiration, find a starting point.
I like to start with people I’ve met or know in real life and then matching them to a traditional archetype and going from there.
Step Two: Childhood and Parent’s Influence
Figure out your character’s origin story, because that will shape who they are and who they have become. Who their parents are can shape their beliefs about the world and perspectives.
Even the lack of a true childhood can have immeasurable impacts: Imagine if Bruce Wayne had a happy childhood or Harry Potter’s parents were alive and well. In Rian Johnson’s clever con artist film The Brother’s Bloom, the brothers’ dynamic is established through their childhood: Bloom’s need for stories to connect with others so he won’t be lonely, and his brother Stephen’s need to supply stories to help Bloom through his insecurities. That dynamic carries all the way through until the very last scene, which is one of my favorite endings of all time because of how the twist comes straight from the heart of who Stephen is.
You may not always walk us through the developmental stages of all your characters before your story begins, but understanding what shaped them into the people they are today will help you create nuance and see your characters as real people.
Step Three: Career and Life Goals
What do they want out of life and their career? What did they envision for themselves? What is their hopes and dreams for the future? In Little Miss Sunshine, the aspirations and hopes of each member of the family color their whole journey as they realize what they are and are not capable of. One of the most poignant reversals in the movie is when (spoiler alert) Sheryl’s son Dwayne who wants to be a pilot, realizes he’s color blind, and his vow of silence is for nothing.
Not all career goals have to play out in your movie one way or another, but it does inform you about their actions and behaviors in the working world.
Step Four: Broad Beliefs and Values
What are their thoughts about the world and how things are? Is your character religious? Spiritual? Superstitious? In Star Wars, Yoda’s teachings about the Force mirrored historical Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu’s teachings about Taoism and The Way. In both Taoism and Star Wars, you don’t know The Way or The Force, you just have to feel and believe in it.
Thinking about your characters beliefs can create other patterns of life and rituals. Do they go to church on Sundays, or do they go to a Buddhist temple? Are they in the religious norm, or are they an extremist or in a minority? Do they feel persecuted by others? What holidays do they celebrate? Does their family follow the same beliefs that they do, or have they stepped away from tradition?
Step Five: Relationships and Love Life
How have previous relationships shaped your character’s love life? Have they faced rejection and now have trouble trusting that new love interests will stick around? In (500) Days of Summer, the core conflict comes from Summer and Tom’s different views on relationships and love. Summer’s warring parents informed her jaded view on love (more childhood!) as shown in the opening sequence, and that adds to the dramatic irony knowing this couple is doomed but wanting them to still end up together despite their incompatible views on relationships.
What kind of relationships has your character had in the past, positive and negative? Are they a hopeless romantic or do they have a more jaded view on love? What was their parents relationship like? Do they have any married friends or siblings?
Step Six: The Burning House Test
This is my favorite exercise of all time because it serves as a litmus test of how well you understand these made up people you just created. The Burning House test is based on the website TheBurningHouse.com which asks, what would you bring with you if your house was burning down? It reveals who someone is and what they consider valuable, and focuses on creating character in the small details.
I’ve also found this exercise helps create meaningful personal objects for your characters. Personal objects is a term used in acting where a particular object holds emotional value in some way to a character and how they interact with it within a scene reveals their inner thoughts. It’s a great layer of subtext and backstory, and another insight into who these figments of your imagination are.