Like all fiction writers, I strive to create characters readers will care about. But that only works if I care about the life experiences that have shaped them. To do that, I’ve found it essential to delve deeply into their backgrounds. Much of what I learn will never appear in my novels, but my characters’ back stories affect how they perceive the world, what they want, and how they react to struggle and conflict.
In her outstanding new craft book, Mastering the Process, From Idea to Novel, Elizabeth George recommends free writing about characters. She uses a character prompt sheet to remind her of important considerations to address, ranging from basic questions such as what a character looks like, to more complex issues, such as identifying a character’s core need and pathological maneuver when that core need is thwarted.
Here, for example, is the first part of a free write I recently wrote about the protagonist of my work-in-progress, Deadly Setup:
Samantha (Sam) Hunter is a long, lanky seventeen-year-old with long brown hair and hazel eyes. She’s the only child of Meryl and the late Doctor Devin Hunter. Her father died of cancer when she was twelve, and in many ways, that has been a defining moment in her life. Sam adored her father, an oncologist, and was very close to him. Before he died, he told Sam to “take care of your mother for me” which left Sam with a difficult and nearly impossible task. Her mother, a wealthy heiress and romance novelist, is impulsive, self-absorbed, and has terrible taste in men. She has never been tuned in to Sam’s needs or feelings. If she were to be diagnosed, it would probably be that she was a narcissist, possibly a sociopath. While she is charming and beautiful and charismatic, Sam’s mom has a limited capacity for empathy for anyone other than herself.
Sam is somewhat of an introvert. She escapes a lot into her music. She plays the piano and is passionate about the American Songbook. Her dad’s dad and great-grandfather were popular musicians, and her dad loved American standards and passed that love on to Sam. Sam serves as the accompanist for school musicals and has also accompanied dance classes in the past, as well as school choirs.
Sam has struggled to feel good about herself. For one thing, her mother is a great beauty, and Sam looks like her father. The only way she can get her mother’s attention is to listen to her mother talking about her work, romances, etc. Her mother also has anger issues and sometimes hits Sam, mostly in Sam’s younger years.
Also, Sam has trouble trusting people. Because she is very wealthy, she never knows whether people are trying to befriend her because of her wealth—or because her closest friend, Kali, is a charismatic beauty like her mom and a magnet for guys at her school who often try to befriend Sam to get close to Kali. Kali tends to be self-absorbed like Sam’s mom, but she genuinely loves Sam and the two have been close since preschool days.
Sam’s trust issues and tendency to be introverted have meant she prefers flying under the radar at school and hanging close to her handful of trusted friends—Kali, Paul, Quentin, and her new boyfriend, Noah. She’s also close to her family’s longtime housekeeper, Hilda, who in many ways, is more of a mom to Sam than her own mother.
Sam has built what esteem she has based on being supportive of her friends and helping them, as well as playing a supportive role as an accompanist. She has a strong helping orientation, which is probably why she is thinking about either becoming an accompanist or music therapist. She also feels good about doing well in school and works extremely hard.
In many ways, I think Sam has two core needs. One is to be genuinely loved and accepted, and the other is to feel some sense of control over her own life. It’s clear that she can’t control her mother or get the love and acceptance from her that she longs for. She also can’t control being falsely accused of murdering her mother’s fiancé. Her pathological maneuver is impulsivity. She doesn’t really trust anyone to take care of her problems, and impulsively tries to take charge of her investigation, despite being warned not to. As for her core need of love and acceptance, I don’t really think of it as pathological, but I think she looks for love and acceptance from folks other than her mother—certainly from Hilda, Noah, and Noah’s family. Her fantasies about being adopted by Noah’s family speak to her longing for love and a warm family life, so lacking for her.
Sam is a little snarky. She dislikes fake people, especially adults, and really disliked her mother’s late fiancé, Adam Holloway. Self-absorbed people like her frenemy Gary also push her buttons, possibly because she has had to deal with so much of that with her mom, and even somewhat with Kali.
Sam may be a made-up character, but she’s very real to me. I feel I know her, and I have some understanding of what has shaped her personality. Despite her family’s wealth, she’s grown up in a very difficult situation. Her back story has colored how she responds to challenges she encounters in the novel, the most dramatic of which is being accused of murdering her mother’s fiancé.
Back story matters in real life as well. Contrast, for example, the characters of our current presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Trump appears to view life as about winning at all costs. If this involves lying, cheating, dividing the country, stoking bigotry and racial animus—that’s no problem in his world view. He never apologizes and never takes responsibility. Empathy for others seems curiously absent from his makeup.
When you view his background and his upbringing, his approach to life becomes much more understandable. He learned from his father that winning was everything and that admitting mistakes was a sign of weakness. According to his psychologist niece, Mary Trump, author of Too Much and Never Enough, love and affection were hard to come by and always conditional in his family. In addition, his father regularly bailed him out of his missteps and failures. Understanding Donald Trump’s back story gives us a window into why he struggles to be a person of compassion as well as competence.
In contrast, Joe Biden had loving parents who went through difficult financial times that sensitized him to the struggles of everyday folks. And his life experiences of losing his first wife and daughter in a tragic car accident, and later a beloved son to cancer, have helped him develop an unusual ability to empathize and connect with those who are grieving. He genuinely cares about other folks, in part because he was genuinely cared about as a child, and because he has experienced great loss and found a way to go on. I believe that his ability to admit mistakes and take responsibility for his actions comes from a grounded place and a positive sense of self rooted in his childhood.
Biden’s not a perfect person, or a perfect candidate, but he’s a decent, compassionate man who wants to address the crises facing our nation and improve the lives of all Americans.
The contrast between these two men could hardly be greater. And just as in our fiction, in real life, back stories matter.