Character backstories can sometimes be glossed over when you’re designing a character, because you get so tied up in the now, but really, the past and present of your character are far more closely linked than you might realize. You can’t just skip backstory, because it’s an integral part of who your character is now and how their character motivation came to be.
Past and present are interlinked in a number of ways when it comes to character, but there are three sections that I think are the most closely tied together: nature, fears, and relationships.
How the Past Influences Your Character’s Nature
Your character’s nature is everything internal that influences their behavior: worldview, goals, character motivation… and also their fears, but I’ll get into that more in-depth in a moment.
Your character’s worldview (which is the underpinning for everything else) is something that has been shaped by their mentors and peers over the course of their whole life. It’s the way they see the world, influenced by how those around them see the world and also by their own experiences. So you need to ask yourself who and what has had the most influence on your character’s worldview. Did their parents pass on core principles? Did they learn from their teachers? From their general society? Do they hold to a faith that shapes their thinking? Who introduced them to that faith?
Worldview can be built either positively or negatively. Maybe your character’s parents passed on their own guiding principles… or maybe they abandoned the character and now the character’s view on family is forever skewed. Maybe they were taught that physical punishment is best for teaching good behavior, but they hate that idea and they’ve formed their own worldview in opposition to that. You can build a worldview out of what you’re taught that you adopt, what you’re taught that you reject, or what you’re never taught but personally experience.
What goals might your character have based on their past? Nissa, from The Shadow Raven, wanted to be a teacher when she was younger because of the hope and encouragement she had gotten from teachers growing up; she wanted to be able to give that same hope and encouragement to others like her. Now she couldn’t care less about that dream, but it was there for a while and had a basis in the past.
Goals will be based on worldview. Nissa learned that her teachers encouraged her to do well, so she attached the ideas of hope and education because education was where she’d found hope. Another character might choose to become a teacher because they believe the next generation is an important force in society. Yet another might choose to become a teacher because they believe it’s the best way to learn more, themselves. All of these different character motivations lead to the same goal, but they stem from different worldviews (one that says education = hope, one that says youth are important, and one that says learning is important).
How the Past Influences Your Character’s Fears
Some fears are innate. A child’s fear of the dark, for instance. Others come about due to negative experiences; for instance, if a character fears loud noises because they associate them with abuse. Past-based fears can be big and serious, or they can be smaller and less crucial. My character Cordain, for instance, fears spiders because his sister Braia was bitten by one when they were little and he’d been terrified she was going to die. That’s much less of a big deal than the character who fears loud noises due to past abuse, but it gives color and a human touch to the character.
Fears will also contribute to character motivation. In some cases, characters might be motivated to confront their fears. In others, there might be a big motivation to not do something because it involves a character’s fear. That will depend on your character’s personality. Fears can produce great conflict for driving stories, which is why so many authors will tell you that your character’s fear is one of the most important things to figure out when you’re planning your book. Fears make great hurdles between a character and their goal.
How the Past Influences Your Character’s Relationships
Past relationships affect (at least to an extent) how characters react to people. For example, if your character had an abusive ex, they’re likely to be cautious around people who seem interested in them. If they’re from a peaceful city where everyone gets along the majority of the time and then they go to a big city that’s more rough-around-the-edges and has criminals in the back alleyways, they’re more likely to be gullible and end up hurt, but they also might be more able to avoid falling in with the wrong crowds (because those crowds would be scary and unfamiliar).
This, of course, is looking at general relationship patterns. But this is also true on a more specific level. Characters learn from every relationship they have. They might learn not to put too much of themselves into relationships, or they might learn to express more interest in a friend rather than keeping the focus on themselves, or they might learn how to let go easier. Or, they might learn that they get along especially well with a certain type of person and end up seeking out similar people as friends. All of these things will carry over to other relationships. Are they more selfless now? Do they still have moments they have to remind themselves to pull back and put their value in something other than a relationship? Do they close themselves off to relationships with people who don’t fit the patterns they’ve observed (perhaps to their detriment)?
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Almost everything has a flip-side. Something like courage can be bravery or recklessness. Humility can be a simple lack of pride or self-deprecation. Think about what your character’s strengths and weaknesses are and then figure out how those traits can manifest themselves positively and negatively. Think about why a trait is more likely to show itself negatively or positively instead of the other based on how they were raised, past experiences, etc. What might they have been trained in or out of? How does their society look on a certain trait of theirs and how does that affect how it manifests or how much? How might a certain character motivation be self-defeating, like if a character tries to surround themselves with one type of friend to build a strong community but then has a community lacking in key ways?
Tying it All Together: Character Motivation
All of these points are truly interconnected. You can’t have goals without motivation. You can’t have motivation without worldview. All of it is influenced by relationships. Often, these things will weave together naturally, without effort. Going back to my example of Cordain and the spiders, that was something I learned when I was filling in his “worst childhood memories.” As it turned out, I’d already put down “spiders” as a fear of his, and the memory (which involved a character: Braia; and a worldview: that family is important) explained why.
But of course you can also do this intentionally, by looking at something about them (a fear, a goal, a scar, a mannerism, just about anything) and figuring out why they’re scared of that, what relationships and worldview concepts led to that goal, how they got that scar (and what fears it left behind), etc. All of these pieces will come together to form the bigger tapestry of character motivation.
Past events are basically plot points in a longer story of a character’s life. Just like plot points within a novel tend to be catalysts for character motivation and growth, the past does the same thing, it’s just not always shown to the reader. The past has more value than you might think, so don’t leave it behind.