Developing backstory is my favorite part of the brainstorming phase of the writing process. As a very character-driven author, and as a mental health counselor, I find I’m very motivated to discover why it is that a character I’ve written behaves in a certain way. Backstory helps me to understand a character—to connect with a character in a visceral manner, such that the question “what would this character do next?” becomes answerable at last. Backstory can make a character real, granting them three-dimensionality.
I’m not going to tell you how to actually incorporate backstory into a manuscript.
That’s a topic that others have covered, so I won’t cover it here. Instead, we’re going to focus on developing backstory during the brainstorming phase, before you actually put pen to paper. Well—pen to manuscript. You’ll need to put pen to paper for this one.
For the purposes of this activity, I’m going to create a character description: My character’s name is Stephen. He goes by Steve to his few friends, but at work, people call him Stephen. Stephen is 32 years old, and he’s a counselor and he works at a community agency. He’s a severe man with a serious face, and he dresses like he’s twenty years older than he looks. The people he works with don’t know much about him. He intimidates the front desk because of his short manner and laconic way of speaking. His clients, though, love him—for some reason. They keep coming back, asking to see Stephen specifically.
Create your own character description. Include the character’s name and age. Make it short like mine, but give yourself enough material to work with. Five sentences should do. Describe only the present of the story. If your story is written in the past tense, consider the present the time at which the story is happening and not the time at which the story is told.
Now that your character description is complete, you’ll find that you have at least a name, an age, and a list of behaviors that your character engages in. For example, Stephen is 32 years old, a severe man with a serious face. He dresses like he’s twenty years older than he looks, keeps his personal life a secret from his coworkers, and intimidates people with his short manner and laconic way of speaking. But his clients love him. The question that keeps popping up in my mind—and it should start to pop up in yours—is why? Why does Stephen have a serious face. Why does he keep his personal life a secret? Why do his clients love him while the front desk is intimidated by him?
The answers are hidden in Stephen’s backstory. To discover them, let’s find out how much time we have to work with. Since my story is set in 2018, then Stephen was born in 1986 (2018 – 32). I have 32 years to work with. I’m going to break those 32 years into thirds. Thirty-two divided by three is 10.667, or between 10 and 11 years. The first one-third of the character’s life is their foundation, the period in their life where behaviors are first learned. The last two-thirds of the character’s life is full of opportunities for reinforcement, or the inculcation of a behavior by repetition.
If you want to, you can picture this all on a sheet of paper by folding it into thirds. Then mark the one-third and the two-thirds lines with your character’s age at that point.
Now we get to play with the past. After all, that’s why we’re here. Start with one behavior. I’m going to select “Stephen dresses like he’s twenty years older than he looks.” Imagine a foundation for this behavior, taking place in the first one-third of Stephen’s life. What might that look like?
Human beings learn behavior in three ways. Often these three occur together, but for the sake of backstory, let’s simplify an instance of learning by separating it into one of the three major categories: instinct, experience, and modeling.
An instinctual behavior is a behavior that is learned from repeated instances of engaging a stimulus with one’s instinctual reaction to that stimulus. For example, my instinct is to recoil and make a warning sound when I see something that disgusts me; since I am disgusted by cockroaches, when I see one now, I will often gasp and jump back. An experiential behavior is a behavior that is learned from repeated instances of engaging with a novel stimulus. For example, when I feel bored, I check the time; since my mobile phone keeps time, whenever I need to check the time, I pull my phone out. A modeled behavior is a behavior that is learned from repeated instances of observing someone else engaging with a novel stimulus. For example, my mom would often criticize others for what they wore; when I am walking in public with a friend, I will turn to her and talk cattily about other people’s clothing choices.
We don’t need one example of each type of learning in order to flesh out a backstory, but knowing the three types of learning can help us come up with one foundational event and one reinforcing event, both of which can teach us about why the character is the way that they are. Here’s my foundational event:
So Stephen’s mom goes to jail at some point after Stephen is born. Then he’s raised by his grandfather, who dresses him up the way that he was dressed up as a kid. There’s no grandmother, so she’s either dead or gone somewhere. There’s no father, so he’s either dead or out of the picture for some reason. Then, when Stephen is six years old, his grandfather dies. This is Stephen’s foundation for dressing the way that he does; he was taught how to dress by his late grandfather (modeling). As he idolized his grandfather, it’s easy to imagine why he would continue to dress like an older man.
Now I need a reinforcing event, which takes place during the latter two-thirds of Stephen’s life. Reinforcing events can be one or many, but they must build upon the behavior learned in the foundation. Here’s my reinforcing event:
So Stephen’s in high school, and he’s made fun of a lot by his peers. They rip into him for the way that he dresses—after all, kids can be cruel. Instead of changing, however, Stephen digs his heels in. He goes all out and decides to start wearing a bowtie every day. He becomes the weird kid who always dresses formally for school. He doesn’t make many friends in high school, and he learns to be wary of his peers. This is a reinforcement for Stephen dressing the way that he does; he is, in a sense, standing up for himself in a way that he knows how (experience).
Also note that this is a reinforcement, perhaps, also for Stephen’s standoffishness with coworkers. After all, he has a reason to not trust his peers now. Behaviors often travel in packs, so it’s easy to imagine how choosing to dress in an unusual way can correlate with Stephen’s feeling of being disconnected from others. See if your character’s behaviors travel in packs. The best combinations of behaviors usually do.
You can now create a new reinforcing event for the same behavior, or you can move on to a different behavior and start with a new foundational event. The choice is yours. After all, this exercise is about creating backstory. If the thought of Stephen’s grandfather sparks an idea, run with it. Let your imagination run wild.
Once you’ve created a fleshed out backstory for your character, you’re done with this part of the brainstorming phase, and you’re ready to move onto more brainstorming. When you’re ready to write the backstory into your main story, keep in mind some of the suggestions others have posted and will post this month. The backstory I helped you to create is for you, not for the reader. The reader may not need to ever learn about Stephen’s grandfather if the grandfather isn’t important to the story. Maybe he’ll come up in a sentence. Maybe the story would benefit from a flashback to when Stephen was five years old. Only you can know what the story needs, and that’s not a question that this post will have helped you answer.
Good luck with your backstory brainstorming!