Some writers work out an entire backstory for their characters before they even start writing. (They usually develop plot outlines, too, and have the amazing capacity to write a book in one or two drafts, since they’ve spent so much time thinking through these things. Needless to say, I am not one of them .)
These remarkable authors keep lists: they can give you the ages, interests, birthdays, marital status etc. of their characters. I’m not nearly that organized. Instead, I tend to feel (and write) as if the characters I create actually occupy some parallel universe. As I spend more time with them, I discover more about it and them.
On the other hand, readers (unless it’s a series) don’t know the characters in a book at all. This means that the author has to figure out what to tell them and when, and decide how much of each character’s backstory to give away.
One thing I know for sure is that dumping a pile of information about a character in the beginning of a book turns off readers like me. I want to discover the characters I read about slowly, the way I’d want to meet any new friend.
I had a client once who carried around a wedding ring in his pocket. He pulled it out on every first date, startling the women he was hoping to attract. (I can tell you, there weren’t too many second dates until he managed to wind things down a little.) Too much, too soon, I think, puts us all off.
Donald Maass, however, suggests (and I agree) that it’s important to put the most interesting bits about your characters early in your book (which is why I can tell you that my pathologist is a dwarf and my Cuban inspector hallucinates his crime victims: it’s in the first three pages).
After all, you want to hook the reader early. But I don’t think you should tell them everything, just like I thought it was a mistake for my client to let the women he’d only met briefly know how desperate he was to get married. The way to do it, I think, is by teasing information out, the way you might release a fishing line, a little at a time.
What I struggle with in my own writing is that all my characters have interesting backstories. I’ve had several agents comment on how any one of them could head up a series of their own.
Initially, I thought this was a compliment, but it isn’t really. It means that the reader’s sympathies are being divided. Literature doesn’t yet favour the ensemble casts of television. One main protagonist, a sidekick, and a few minor characters seems to be the rule.
As a result, I’ve been persuaded to remove great chunks of backstory. Allan Guthrie, the wonderful Scottish Noir author (and a great read, by the way: I love his stuff) put it best when he pointed out to me that even though the backstory I had put in about certain secondary characters was charming, the book I was writing wasn’t their story.
For each of my characters, I have a pretty good sense of who they are, what they like, what they value. Each of us has a core set of values. If you know those of your characters, they will be congruent in how they act, even if the backstory as to how they became who they are is never told.
Not everyone who knows us knows our personal histories, but over time, they get a pretty good sense of what we might do in any given situation, and what’s important to us.
To those around us, our actions flesh out our character. But even those who know us the best don’t know everything about us. I think the people who populate books should be written pretty much the same way.