Getting a Life: Developing Character Backstory

There are lots of ways to develop your characters’ histories. Biographies, physical descriptions, archetypes, and hypothetical questions like “What would your character do if…?” can help you gain insight into what makes your character tick.  I am going to offer two that I found particularly helpful.

One exercise that can be helpful involves inventing a basic history for your character is to jot down what you know or have imagined about your character’s social and cultural histories.  You can also do this for any number of dimensions relevant to your character’s personal make up (e.g. religious history, family secrets, rules and customs that define your character’s life), but a character’s social history (how a character has spent his or her life behaving and coping with life) and cultural history (What values, attitudes, and ideas a character holds dear) are telling with respect to how a character arrived at the person s/he is when we first meet her/him in the plot and why they respond to the actions in the plot as as they do.

When examining a character’s social history, we want to know about his defining behaviors similar to how a psychologist might describe one of her patients prior to treatment. Does he have a history of being withdrawn? An extrovert? How does he cope with life in good and bad moments? What does he want out of life? Incidentally, these are the same questions we would ask when figuring out what archetype a character falls into: What does this person care about? What does he fear? What motivates him? and How do other characters view him?

A character’s cultural history, on the other hand, tells us how the values, ideas, and attitudes she grew up with influenced her life.  If we think of the idea of nature versus nurture, a social history focuses more on a person’s nature and disposition (inborn tendencies), while a cultural history examines the “nurture” aspect–how the world around them has taught them to become who they are (learned behavior). Did she grow up in a family that valued education and degrees? Did her family encourage her to be artistic? Did she get in trouble for showing anger or expressing emotion?

For instance, we know that to a certain extent, a person’s temperament is influenced by their genes.  If a person is born with a natural tendency toward emotion, gets frustrated easily, or is more sensitive in nature, he will probably be the sort of person who experiences life in terms of  physical or emotional reactions rather than mental or spiritual ones.  This defines a person’s social history.

Consider the ways in which the religion we grow up with, the country we live in, and even our own families influence and teach us about the world.  We live in a country that has taught us to believe that competition is healthy.  Our beliefs about beauty, sex, men, and women define what we see on television and movies and hear in music.  Our country was founded on Judeo-Christian values, and this also influences us to a great extent.  If you look at other cultures around the world, you will see that the values, ideas, and attitudes important to them (the definition of culture) is not necessarily the same as ours.In terms of developing your character, however, probably the most influential culture will be her family and friends, because they are the ones closest to and most impactful on your character’s backstory.

Take the time to imagine the circumstances your character grew up in, paying particular attention to the connections and interactions between her social and cultural histories and keep these in mind as clues that will help predict your character’s choices and decisions as she encounters the complications and obstacles in your play.

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