A mistake that many beginning writers make is giving their readers too much backstory. They load their first few chapters with details about their character’s past. We hear about the nun they hated in Catholic school and the girl who dumped them in the eleventh grade and the first job they had out of college. If this information is important to your readers’ understanding of what is going on now, then it is all right to include it. If it isn’t, then it shouldn’t be in your book. For example, if that experience with the nun is what has led your character to become a serial killer (that must have been some nun!), then by all means, tell us about it. If it informed your character’s personality, but in a way that doesn’t directly impact the story you are telling, leave it out. While your readers want to know about your characters, they also want to know what happens next, so you have to balance out backstory with action. Only give your readers what they need.
So, if your readers don’t need to know about the nun and the girlfriend and the job, does that mean you don’t need to know it? Unfortunately, you don’t get off as easily as they do. While a fact of your character’s past may not affect the story you are telling, it may affect your character and how he behaves. All people, real or imagined, are a jumble of characteristics, tics, and motivations that we have acquired over the course of our lives. From our backstory, you could say. This mélange of attributes is what makes us interesting and unique. And it’s what will make your character seem like a real, fully embodied person.
Knowing your character well will also help you ensure that he is behaving consistently throughout the book (unless you purposely have him do something out of character because the story demands it). How will your character react when he feels his wife is slipping away? If he took that eleventh-grade breakup hard, he may become clingy in a desperate attempt to hold on to her and prevent a repeat. What will he say when his son comes home with green hair? If he still feels the sting of that nun’s ruler, which came down every time he tried to express himself, he may embrace his son’s demonstration of personality, or at least not freak out and demand he dye it back. Knowing who your character is inside lets you create a vivid and consistent “public” persona for him.
Understanding your character will also help you determine, and express, his motivation. What does he want and what will he do to get it? Your character’s motivation is the reason that he goes about trying to solve whatever particular plot problem you have put in front of him, and his motivation is a result of all of his experiences. Without this information, it will be more difficult for you to convey his motivation to your readers. And your readers need to understand what motivates your character in order for him to come fully to life for them. In Writing Fiction Step by Step, Josip Novakovich puts it this way, “A character without a motive is not a character, properly speaking, in a dramatic sense, but is an element of the setting, static, like a piece of furniture.”
How do you go about packing your character’s emotional baggage? That depends on who you are as a writer and how you like to work. Several days before I go on a trip, I write out a long packing list of everything I’ll need. My husband throws everything in a suitcase the night before we leave with barely a thought. Methods for figuring out who your character is can be equally varied.
If you’re the kind of writer who plans out most of the details before you even start writing, you may want to come up with a list of questions you ask yourself about your character while you are still in the planning stages. Did he have a happy childhood? What is he afraid of? What type of relationships did he have? Was he rich or poor growing up? There is not one list that will work for everyone and every book. Come up with a list that hits most of what you think you will need to know, then add or remove questions as needed. If you are more of a seat-of-your-pants writer, you may choose to be more flexible about the process. You might stop writing and ask yourself questions about your character when you find yourself unsure what they would do in a certain situation. Or you might find yourself in a certain situation and ask how your character would react and why. There’s no right or wrong way. Both my husband and I end up with a suitcase sitting by the front door on travel day. Find a method that suits who you are as a writer and get packing!