Our lives are a series of experiences wrapped up into the package that is our personality. Reactions, quirks, favorites, dislikes, all of these are an abundance of multiple minute moments from the beginning of our life to the end that defines who and how we are as a person. For a character, this is no different.
No matter where your story takes place in your characters timeline, that character did exist and grow long before you put pen to paper for the current plot. While that may sound counter-intuitive, the truth of the matter is that characters must have a life of their own if you ever wish to see them become beloved characters to your audience. Without this rounded out background or history, some characters come off flat or two-dimensional. Stunted by their momentary existence instead of given the time and patience needed to understand them as a whole.
A character’s history is just as important as its present and future. While there is no need to go through and write books upon books about every mundane and insignificant moment your character endured from child to adult, understanding those spikes of significance is incredibly important to their development. That then brings to question what is or is not significant in a character’s life and what is important to note on or off the final product. The best way to judge if the moment marks your characters life is if they will look back on it as a memory that changed or influenced their future.
I have found that the best way to make a mark on a character’s history and growth is to apply the seven phases of life principle. While reading the play As You Like It recently it was the line describing the many phases of life a man goes through that stuck with me. From babe to death it outlined the steps a person takes. This reference made me organize my characters by seven different phases: Infant, Child, Adolescent, Teen, Young Adult, Adult and Elder.
Taking each phase that my character has already been through I find one to two significant events, be it good or bad, that would affect the development of my character’s personality. These moments in their time of growth become a reference point for their current interactions or reactions to events nearby.
My method is far from the only one that can be employed. Finding your own way to outline and get to know your character and their history is up to you. Just remember that if you allow your characters to come to life through their history and personality, your readers will find themselves further immersed in the story and world you wish to share.
What other methods of writing a character’s history do you use? Please tell us in the comments!