Creating backstories for your characters can be overwhelming—especially if you have more than a few main characters in your story! There are many elements to consider, and it can be difficult to know where to start. Lucky for you, I’ve outlined the things you’ll need to know to make compelling character backstories from start to finish.
Now, it can be tempting to just rush through this process and just start writing your story, but you shouldn’t cut corners here. The characters you create shouldn’t just exist within the confines of the story they are part of. They need to feel like they existed before the start of the story, like the story is only one snapshot of a much longer narrative. This way, your characters, and their world, will feel much more alive to your readers.
Although this advice is mostly intended for writing, you can also use these for fleshing out a D&D character, making character bios for roleplays, or making backstories for characters in films, animations, comics, and anywhere else.
Why Character Backstories are Important
A character’s backstory is an important part of who they are. A well-defined backstory can help to explain the character’s behavior, fears, desires, outlook on life, self-image, and motivations. The things that happened to them earlier in their timeline defines who they are in the present story—just as your past shaped you into the person you are today.
Beyond that, a good backstory can build sympathy for your characters, and make readers truly care about them. Without a backstory, your characters will feel inauthentic and one-dimensional, and you’ll risk losing readers if they can’t connect with your characters. Creating a good background for each of your main characters is essential to making lovable characters and fan favorites.
Don’t forget about your bad guys, either! Any good villain needs a solid backstory to explain why they strayed from the path of morality. For more tips, check out How to Write Good Villains in Fiction.
What to Include in a Character’s Backstory
There are several elements of a character’s past that you should consider when trying to flesh out their timeline. Each part is important, but understand that many of these categories are interconnected and overlapping with each other. The character’s place of origin could be connected with family traditions, socioeconomic class, religion, and more, just as travel can impact a character’s love life and work. Everything must work together to make sense.
Place of Origin
A character’s place of origin could be either where they were born, or where they lived for most of the time they were growing up. The place in which a character was raised could have a large impact on their culture, their beliefs, and how they see the world.
For example, even if two characters are both from the U.S., they could have very different beliefs from each other. The culture of the deep south is different from that of the Midwest, or the Mid-Atlantic or New England areas. These differences are only exacerbated with international characters. Do your research, and make sure you understand the places where your characters are from, including the local culture, economy, and landscape.
If you’re writing in a fantasy world, make sure you’ve considered the cultural differences of different areas, and how life changes depending on where a character grows up. For pointers, you could check out my article Creating a Fictional Culture.
A character’s relationship with their parents, siblings, and extended family can have a huge impact on how they develop. Love from family (or lack thereof) can be one of the strongest influences in a character’s life. What is their relationship with their parents? Did they grow up loved? Neglected? Were they adopted? Were they raised by an older sibling or grandparent? Did they know their parents at all? Do they even have any family? These things can really change how a character sees the world.
For example, if a character was always competing with their many siblings to be the best in school, the best at sports, the most artistic, or just the most successful in general, then they probably would develop a competitive attitude even if they are no longer around their siblings.
For another example, a character who grew up neglected may end up becoming a people-pleaser, and try to get attention from wherever and whoever they can. Alternatively, a different character in the same situation may become apathetic and mean.
You should establish the basis of the character’s family life, such as:
- How many siblings they have
- What their relationship is with each of their siblings
- How they were raised
- What their parents were like
- What their relationship with their parents was like
- What other family members they grew up with
- What (if any) childhood pets they had
Circumstances of Birth
The circumstances of a character’s birth lays the foundation for their childhood. The character’s outlook on life could be very different if they were planned or accidental. If they were accidental, that may put a strain on their relationship with their parents. Likewise, if they were the result of cheating or a fling, then they would likely grow up with only one parent—if they aren’t surrendered to foster care or an adoption agency.
It’s also possible for their mother to die during or shortly after childbirth, surrounding the character’s knowledge of their mother in grief and confusion. They could even be abandoned somewhere and left to die. There are countless situations that could surround a character’s birth, and as I’m sure you can imagine, each one has wildly different connotations for the character.
Socioeconomic status refers to a person’s social and economic position in society in relation to others. A character’s position in society would have a fairly substantial influence on the way they grow up. If they are lower on the socioeconomic scale, they might not have as much money as their neighbors, or they might not have access to the best schools or scholarships.
On the other hand, having a high socioeconomic status could mean the character is used to success being easy, as opportunities are granted to them at every corner. They may be wealthy or noble, and live in a good neighborhood with other wealthy children. They would have access to good schools, higher education, and even safe spaces to hang out.
However, coming from a position of wealth could also impact the character in negative ways, such as having high standards imposed upon them. They may struggle to meet their family’s expectations or feel suffocated by the rigid rules of high society. Likewise, coming from a position of low socioeconomic status isn’t all bad: it can teach a character the value of hard work and make them more sympathetic to others who are struggling.
Religion plays a big part in a character’s personal development. Religious teachings tend to dictate a specific way of thinking. For example, many religions preach kindness to others, respect for living things, and personal discipline.
However, with religion comes bias. An unfortunate consequence of religion, especially one open for interpretation, is that some people use it to justify narrow ways of thinking. A character could be more judgemental of someone who doesn’t share their faith or doesn’t live by the standards outlined by their religion.
The religion that a character grew up with continues to influence them as they age, regardless of whether they have stayed loyal to their religion or strayed from it. They could even have switched to a different religion, but they may still cling to behaviors they learned from their old church.
School is an important part of a character’s past, but experiences can vary wildly. The specific impacts it has will depend on the character and the school itself. Depending on the character and their situation, school could either elevate them or chip away at their self-esteem. Establishing your character’s experiences in school, as well as where and how long they attended, can help you understand a large part of their childhood.
Here are some questions to help you figure out the details.
- What kind of student was the character?
- Were they bullied?
- What grades did they get?
- Did they make any friends?
- Did they make any enemies?
- What kind of reputation did they have?
- Did they have any nasty teachers?
- Was the school low-income?
- Was it a boarding school?
- Did they attend multiple different schools?
You should try to figure out all the details of their life at school, so you can draw up realistic memories and talking-points throughout the story. You can also use the character’s experiences at school to justify their behavior. If they struggle with self-confidence, they might have been bullied in school. If they try to please everyone, they might have had a hard time making friends or succeeding in the classroom. Draw connections between the character’s experiences in school and their behavior in the present.
Obviously, not every character goes to a traditional school, but you should still consider their mentors and how they learned what they know—whether that’s knitting or how to take a life.
People typically work many different jobs before settling into a long-term career, and each of those jobs plays a part in that person’s personal and professional development. Decide where your character has worked over the years, what positions they held, and for how long.
Once again, here are some questions to get you started:
- How many different places have they worked?
- What elements of each job did they enjoy or look forward to?
- What parts did they dislike?
- How and when did their employment at each place end?
- What were their supervisors and coworkers like at each place?
- Is there a job they regret leaving?
- Are they working their dream job now?
- If not, what is their dream job?
Like with school, work takes up a lot of a person’s time, so their experiences at work are going to impact their overall happiness of quality of life. Bad bosses, gossipy coworkers, and workplace harassment can weigh heavily on a character, while cool bosses and friendly coworkers could result in lifetime friendships.
Most people don’t stay in the same place their whole lives. Whether they’re vacationing in Spain or moving across the country, people tend to move around the world over the course of their lives. When it comes to your character, you should have a pretty clear idea of what trips they’ve been on, where they’ve visited, and the different places they’ve called home. Different locations should be tied to different memories for the character as well, both good and bad.
In order to do this well, this may require you to do some research on different locations so you can have a reasonable understanding of what life is like in the places your character has been. If your story takes place in a fictional world, then you’ll need to make sure your worldbuilding covers the entire map, and not just the places the characters will visit in the story.
Past relationships can complicate future ones, so it’s important to figure out your character’s dating history. If they’ve never been in a relationship before, they’re going to approach a new romance differently than if they’ve had a bad breakup before. Whether they’ve had one meaningful relationship in the past or a string of hookups, you should iron out the details of their love life before you start the story.
Maybe the character is still hung up on an old lover, or maybe they’re still in a relationship when a new romance blooms with a different character. Romance is a great opportunity to play with morality and conflicting emotions, and that goes for all past romances as well. Your characters don’t always have to be the good guys, after all—maybe they’re learning from past relationship mistakes, or maybe, they’re on the cusp of making new saucy bad decisions.
Relation to Other Characters
If your story starts and some of the characters are already friends, lovers, friendly rivals, enemies, or exes, then you’ll need to figure out how long they’ve known each other, and how their relationship has evolved over time. It’s important to have at least a general knowledge of the things the characters have been up to prior to the beginning of the story. Create highs and lows for their relationship, so that you can use “touchy subjects” and inside jokes throughout their dialogue. Try to have at least a few different events, stories, arguments, or other encounters figured out, so you can reference those throughout the story.
One of the most interesting ways a relationship can develop is when enemies fall in love with each other. It’s not easy to do, but if you can pull it off, it adds a nice dramatic element to your characters’ interactions and the dynamic of the group.
If two characters hate each other, you should know exactly what events led up to that kind of relationship. This will give you an opportunity later on to slowly reveal why they hold these sentiments, and whether they can change over time. The same applies to if characters are in love, best friends, or tense around each other. How did they meet? What were their first impressions of each other? What happened to make their opinions about each other change? What have they experienced together?
In fact, you can even write some of these scenes as a warm-up exercise—they might make good stories on their own, but it’s also a fun way of keeping detailed notes about specific events they’ve experienced together.
The Defining Moments
Some events can have a much larger, and often sudden, impact on your character’s life. Events that have the power of altering the path of the story or changing the characters’ lives are known as “Defining Moments.” These moments are the big pieces of a character’s past that define who they are.
Defining moments in a character’s life can take many forms, but they are defined primarily by their significance in the story. Some examples of defining moments are:
- The character met the love of their life by chance while dumpster diving.
- The character was in a bad accident and they lost all their savings to pay off hospital bills.
- The character witnessed a terrible crime and became entangled in a complicated legal process.
- The character experienced something traumatic, and their mental health is never the same afterward.
- The character quit a job they hated but hasn’t been able to find more work.
- The character took a vacation, but their plane went down on an uninhabited island.
- The character learned something new about their enemy that changed the way they think of them.
- The character had a child.
Making a Character’s Timeline
When coming up with a character’s backstory, it can help to plot out events on a visual timeline. As elementary as it seems, being able to see their history in one place can really help to cement the details. Visual timelines can take many different forms, though, so you have options when it comes to how you arrange the information.
The most straightforward way to plot a character’s timeline is with a literal line drawn on a piece of paper with notches spaced equally apart to indicate a specified span of time (you could probably also do this digitally, or with some sort of online software). Then, you would simply write abbreviated descriptions of the events in their life around this line, and connect them to the notch that corresponds with the year the event took place.
Alternatively, you could use a spreadsheet, or even just a word document to keep track of everything. As long as you format it in a way that is easy to see, you can use whatever method you’re most comfortable with.
Now, obviously, you aren’t going to be able to fit the character’s entire history on a visual timeline. You get a little more leeway with spreadsheets and documents, but you still shouldn’t include every little thing. These timelines are only useful if you don’t overload them with pointless information—they are for keeping track of important dates and events that are meaningful to the plot. If you make timelines for each of your characters, then they can also be helpful for establishing where everyone is when an event affects multiple characters, such as a city-wide disaster.
Defining moments should be specially marked on the character’s timeline to make it especially clear which past events have the most significance to the character and the story.
Revealing a Character’s Backstory in a Story
Remember, just because you know everything about your character doesn’t mean you should tell your readers everything about them. You especially shouldn’t just dump the character’s backstory out on the first few pages. Instead, you should pick and choose the things that are important for readers to know for the story to make sense, and reveal them over time. This leaves more of an opportunity for readers to make speculations and feel more involved with the character before the truth is completely revealed—without overwhelming them.
For more tips, check out my other article The Do’s and Don’ts of Revealing Character Backstories.
With a little work, your characters can end up being the kind readers remember for years to come.