Giving Characters a History

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History is essential for writing a good story.  And no, I don’t say that just because I’m a historian who wants to keep her field relevant in the oft-forgetful twenty-first century.  Okay, maybe that’s my second reason.  But my first reason goes right along with what Brian explained in a post last week:  History explains cause and effect.  In other words, it answers the questions of why and how.  In a future post, I’ll discuss the importance of history in constructing a storyline.  Today, however, I’m here to talk about using history to create good characters.

In my current work-in-progress Sidhe Eyes, I have humans interacting with magical races.  Now this raises a lot of questions.  Where did the humans come from?  Why are they interacting the way that they are?  Why wasn’t there strife between the races until now?  Why do most of the different countries in my fictional world speak English?  Why don’t the people of Glemaria (the country where my story takes place) rise up in protest against their ever-maddening king?  Why are my evil characters evil?

History holds the answer to all these questions!  The humans, as you will learn in far greater detail (and with considerably more excitement) in my next book, actually came from our world, in the 1500s.  There’s a perfectly logical historical reason (half real history and half plausible I-made-it-up history) for them to have shown up in my world.  They behaved a certain way because they came from a particular area and had lived under particular conditions.  They were the first humans in my world, and from them came most of the other humans.  Hence, most people speak English in my world because their ancestors spoke it.  They haven’t striven against magical races before now because of the way their ancestors were.  They accept their king’s behavior because of strict tradition, incidents within their history, and a bit of nationwide Stockholm Syndrome (see, even psychology has its place in creating characters).  Minute details, such as the color worn to funerals, the foods eaten, the games played by children, and the etiquette observed all harken back to history.

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono.

Now not everyone has to be as OCD as I am about constructing a thorough history, the bulk of which will never be brought up in the story.  However, it you do take the time to do so, you will find that your story flows much easier.  Your audience doesn’t have to know the reason for every single action, line of dialogue, etc.  But you DO.  You, the author, have to know the whys and hows if you are to have any hope of continuity.  If you’re writing about a completely new world, as I am, you’re going to have to take the time to write out a historical timeline for your world, in order to understand the people and creatures in it.  Worlds don’t just spontaneously appear with the first sentence spoken by your main character.  Characters are not born the second that they strut into their first scene (well, not usually).  They both need existence first.  And existence requires a past, a history.  Think of history as a blueprint for each character.

Character history is one of the fundamental differences between Rowling’s Harry Potter series and many of the hundreds of poorly-written fantasy books that no one has ever read, which litter the discount bins of bookstores.  Rowling mapped out each character in advance.  She knows the complete story of characters like Dean Thomas, but you, the reader, learn almost nothing of their histories.  Because she knows all about the characters, she can be certain that they always behave in a consistent manner.  She can assess how each would respond to different stimuli.  The reader doesn’t necessarily need to know why one character would find a situation more frightening than another would, but the author has to know.  In dealing with main characters, this becomes an even more crucial matter.  Rowling has every detail of Harry Potter’s life and his parents’ lives planned out well in advance, allowing her to reveal just the right amount in each successive book, without blatant contradictions.  Most of the writers behind the piles of unread fantasy didn’t bother with histories.  Their excitement over magic, enchanted creatures, and exciting plot twists got in the way.  They don’t know each character’s background, nor do they know enough to care.  And their books don’t sell.

Giving another example from my own not-yet-finished story, in Sidhe Eyes, I have a minor character named Nobbley, a delusional dwarf who thinks he’s a miniature giant.  Nobbley is not crucial to my plot, in fact, he’s mostly just comic relief.  If he gets in the way or gets annoying to me, I may kill him off in this book.  But Nobbley has a rich, detailed history.  I know when and where he was born, how he was raised, what events happened during his formative years, even the details of his one great unrequited love.  In my book, you will read almost none of this.  It really has nothing to do with the story.  But because I have written this history for my character, I know exactly how Nobbley would respond to any situation.  I know what things would anger him, what things would please him, and I even know the root cause of his strange obsession with rocks.

In the cases of my main characters, Flavia and Edric (that ever-feuding married couple who post regularly on the Lantern Hollow Character Blog), they have even more detailed histories.  I know their respective family trees, back more than 400 years!  It took a lot of work (and considerable help from baby name websites), but knowing the family trees has enabled me to know my characters better.  In writing out the royal family line (Edric is a prince by birth), I learned more about Glemaria’s history, which in turn taught me more about all of the native Glemarian creatures (Nobbley is actually a foreigner, as are a few other characters).

Let me guess, you think I’m absolutely nuts, advocating far more work than any sane person should put into writing.  Well, allow me to prove the importance of history.  Let’s use YOU as my example this time.

Think about your morning routine.  You probably have a favorite breakfast.  At some point you had to have been introduced to it.  Did your mother make it for you perhaps?  Do you drink coffee (ah, sweet elixir of life!) in the morning?  That had to start somewhere, too.  You hop in the car and drive somewhere, hopefully to work.  How do you drive?  Probably, your driving style is influenced by who taught you or where you learned (e.g. I learned in Michigan, so I drive fast and know how to merge).  How did you end up in your particular career (or lack thereof)?  You possibly went to college, or had some sort of training, or at some point wanted to do something that led in this direction.  Maybe adverse circumstances put you where you are.  How do you treat the people that you see during your day?  This is often influenced by how your parents raised you.  You meet a friend for dinner after work.  Where did that friendship start?  How has the friendship affected you?  Do you now enjoy a particular food or activity because the friend introduced it to you?  Back at home, you get ready for bed.  What has influenced your standard bedtime routine?  Do you use a particular toothpaste because it’s what your mom always bought or because your spouse likes it?  Do you say a prayer before going to bed?  That had to start somewhere, too.

You see, it all comes back to history, cause and effect.  If it’s true of you, it’s true of your characters.  Yes, giving characters a history takes a lot of extra work.  Yes, it means a lot of thinking, a lot of lists, possibly even some charts.  Yes, it may give you a few headaches.  But the result is a story that flows far better and agrees with the audience far more.  Your characters will naturally be more consistent.  You’ll even stave off some instances of writers’ block, since you’ll always know exactly how characters should respond to stimuli.

Want to get started writing histories for your characters?  Here are a few websites that I have found very helpful:

Family Echo — I find it really helpful to create family trees for characters.  This site allows you to make and store family trees for free.

Day of the Week Calculator — When you’re writing in this world (or a world that uses the same dating system), sometimes it’s helpful to know what day of the week an event would fall on.

Inflation Calculator — For writing stories that take place in this world, it’s handy to know the correct value of money in different years.

Character Map — Microsoft offers a handy downloadable character map (just scroll down and you’ll see the link to download it).  Though meant for teaching schoolchildren, character maps can be a useful way to keep track of facts about a particular character in your story.

Well, happy writing!

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About HistoryGypsy

I'm a high school history teacher and author of upcoming novel Sidhe Eyes. I live in gorgeous Qingdao, China, where I spend much of my free time studying the fascinating and frustrating Chinese language, eating odd things, or taking long walks along the Yellow Sea. At "While We're Paused" I have the pleasure of blogging about things that catch my interest: good books, language, history, poetry, writing tips, grammar rants, random humor . . . I don't like to get in a rut! Some of my favorite writers include (and this is by no means an exhaustive list): Dorothy Sayers, J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Jules Verne, Baroness Orczy, Geoffrey Wawro, John Lynn, Bill Bryson, the Bronte sisters, John Christopher, J.M. Barrie, O. Henry, Roald Dahl, and Robert Graves. I usually find myself reading no less than three books at a time!

Posted on September 13, 2010, in Audio Posts, Characters, Harry Potter, History, J. K. Rowling, Stephanie Thompson, World Creation, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. This is a really good post Stephanie.

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