30 Days of Developing Characters: Creating Character Backstory

Diving deep into creating characters' backstories not only helps you create roles actors want to play, but also creates more opportunities for interesting plot points and conflict. Jeanne Veillette Bowerman gives you 30 days of lessons on developing your characters.
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What's your character's backstory_ (1)

Welcome to Day 2 (and 3 and 4) of our Screenwriting Homeschooling 101. Our first day of "homework" involved identifying your story concept, theme and character goals. You can read about the inception of our 30 Days of Character Development idea here. Feel free to bookmark that link, as I'll be updating that post with links to all of the future tips and lessons, so you can have them all in one place.

DAY 2, 3, and 4: Character Backstory

To know how your character would behave under pressure, or in any other situation, you must know their backstory. Let yourself go wild here. Don't limit or box your character in and don't limit their options to only your life experience. Have fun with this exercise! 

In the book, The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lajos Egri explains the three aspects of creating a character: 

  • Physical appearance
  • Sociological upbringing
  • Psychological attitudes

Day 2 - Physical Appearance: 

Eye and hair color are not things screenwriters typically write about because we shouldn't limit the casting director's options. Those details are for them to decide, unless they are critical to the story. Usually, they are not. 

However, many writers still like imaging their character's physical appearance, even creating charts with pictures of actors they envision playing the role, or by using character worksheets. But also consider other aspects, such as their posture and general appearance. Do they present with shoulders back and confident, always buttoned up and neat, or do they slump over, not showering for days and run errands in their pajamas? 

How would they feel if they were forced to look the opposite of how they regularly appear? How does their appearance influence self-esteem and those around them? Do they dress for themselves or to please others in their lives? Do they even care what other people think?  

We all make a choice every day on how we will present ourselves. Those choices are ours, even if that choice is to behave in a manner to please someone else. It's not just about how we present ourselves, but it's also about why we choose to present ourselves a certain way that divulges a lot about our backstories and even how we relate to others. 

Unless you're writing a one-person play, your characters will interact with others and make a choice on how they present themselves.

Day 3 - Sociological Upbringing

Examine the sociological and economic background of your characters, especially your antagonist and protagonist. Ask the following questions, but feel free to elaborate with details of your own:

  • What was their childhood neighborhood like? Wealthy or depressed? 
  • How many family members did they have? Were they close?
  • Were their parents attentive or neglectful? Employed or struggling to find work?
  • Did they have to take care of sick or elderly family members? 
  • What's their occupation? Union or non-union, self-employed, employee, income level?
  • Are they educated? Good student or bad? Best and worst subjects?
  • What's their marital status? Do they even believe in marriage?
  • Does religion matter to them, if so, what religion do they practice?
  • What's their standing in the community? Involved or uninvolved? Volunteer? A leader?
  • What are their hobbies? What do they do for fun?

Here's where you should think outside the box. Don't make them a waitress, struggling to pay the rent. Pick a job we don't see often on screen. Something that really shows us about the person. I have a book called Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do by Studs Terkel. It's just what the title suggests. Goldmine! 

Day 4 - Psychological

I saved the best for last. This is where you take what you've already learned about your character and figure out how their foundation impacts their psyche. Think not only about how you would describe your character's psychological well being, but also how they would describe themselves. Are they even aware of their flaws?

  • Are they temperamental, judgmental, frustrated, or at peace and easygoing?
  • How's their sex life? Have they ever been in love? Do they feel lovable?
  • Do they have high or low moral standards?
  • Are they ambitious or lazy?
  • Do they have an active imagination?
  • Are they an introvert, extrovert or ambivert?
  • What is their attitude toward life? Are they hopeful or a defeatist?
  • What's their IQ? 
  • Are they naïve and a pushover or powerful and proactive?

You get the point. 

But I want you to consider something else: How they see themselves may not be how your other characters perceive them to be. Oftentimes, those two views do not align. An insecure person may be skilled at hiding those feelings, presenting a veneer of confidence to the outside word. If that's the case for your character, you've just discovered a plethora of ways to add conflict to your story. 

Knowing your characters inside and out helps you put them in positions that will elevate the conflict. Just think about Breaking Bad. Walt was one complicated dude who had a lot of secrets. Whether you've seen the series or not, stop what you're doing and watch the pilot episode and just focus on Walt's behavior. See if you can answer the questions in Days 2, 3 and 4, when it comes to Walt. His character is one of the best ever created for TV.

Take the next 3 days to learn your characters' backstories. You might want to explore your own, too. After all, we tend to write what we know. But more importantly, your own backstory might help you realize why you're making the choices you do for your own life. See how I snuck that therapy couch in there? 

Stay tuned for Day 5's lesson here.

More articles by Jeanne Veillette Bowerman

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