Backstory: Why It Matters

We all know that desires are what drive the action in a character-based story, but where do these desires come from? It’s important for a writer to know exactly what factors in a character’s life fuel his or her actions. I’m talking good actions, bad actions, inactions, whatever. It all has to come from somewhere.

I’m not going to tell you that you have to know every scrap of minutiae about your characters, but a) knowing more about them is never a bad thing and b) seemingly insignificant details can make a difference depending on the context. What’s your character’s favorite film? If it’s Titanic, maybe your character subconsciously holds all of his or her relationships to the standard presented by Jack and Rose. Suddenly your character’s sparse love life makes a little more sense, doesn’t it? If your character is a serial killer (serial killers are hot right now, I believe), maybe he or she originally drew inspiration from Hannibal Lecter or another well-known fictional killer. Or maybe your killer is on that path for another reason. It’s your business to know.

Over the winter break, I came back to a feature-length screenplay that I wrote a first draft of a while ago and found that some of my characters’ actions didn’t make sense. In particular, I had one character, a cameraman by trade, who had a strong tendency not to interfere when things were going wrong around him. Why?

The following is the backstory that I wrote for this character. It’s been edited for length and nothing else.

Phineas had more opportunities to be social growing up, but he was always a little too perceptive for his own good. A few wrongly-placed words and a few ruined friendships later, he realized that the best way to get by in life was to keep his mouth shut so the secrets wouldn’t get out.

He got the idea to become a cameraman at an early age, when he went to a children’s science museum and there was a newsroom exhibit.

Also at an impressionable age, he watched a documentary where some animals died and he wondered why the cameraman didn’t save them. After thinking about it for a long time, he realized that it was just like him and his friends: the cameraman wasn’t allowed to interfere and that was ultimately for the best.

When he was in film school, he got to go on an internship shooting a nature documentary in Africa. There was a real pretty girl there and there was almost something between them. Then one day they saw an injured monkey getting eaten alive by an eagle. She lost it and couldn’t keep filming. Phineas did. They grew apart after that.

Since then, Phineas knows what his place is. It’s to stay behind the camera and do what other people won’t do, which is to film everything without interfering and without getting a scrap of recognition.

I learned more about this character through this than I have in the three projects I’ve used him in so far. His social situation as a teenager, the fact that he lost a chance at young love just by doing his job, go a long way towards explaining why he’s so ridiculously jaded. The thing about the monkey getting eaten alive may seem a little heavy-handed, but those are the kinds of earth-shattering things that happen to people sometimes and really change their lives, for better or for worse. As for the detail about the science museum, that’s taken from my own life. I used to want to be a camera operator and that was why. So I know it’s plausible.

Will I mention any of this in the final project? Probably not. But it’ll be easier for me to write this character without anything feeling forced now that I know where his behavior comes from. We’re not the same, after all. He might make decisions sometimes that I never would. But the more I’m able to step into his shoes, the more naturally his reactions will come to me.

So my challenge to all you writers out there is to pick a character, any character, from one of your projects, and start asking questions about them. Why does he have such a short temper? Why does she feel the need to help other people? You might be surprised by what you find.