Everyone has a history, even our characters. A writer will naturally put a lot of thought into their back stories. We might create a rich childhood for them, full of memories. Or we’ll see them through other relationships that failed before we introduce them to the love of their life. Rarely do all these details make it into the work. Rather, their function is to help flesh out the idea of a character, give them substance and humanity. If we know the joys and sorrows they’ve endured, we can understand their emotions, their fears, and how they’d likely react to future situations. This is how a character becomes a living, breathing person to both the writer and the reader.
I prefer bruised characters over broken. Those who’ve experienced tough knocks, sustained some injuries, then got back on their feet and brushed themselves off to try again. They’re more circumspect than skittish. But how do you write their failures without them becoming a character flaw? We need this hero or heroine to be single, but how did they get that way? What happened? Relationships dissolve for a lot of reasons. The blame is rarely one-sided. Why did their former lover leave or cheat on them? Why did they fall out of love? What didn’t work before and how can they guarantee it won’t happen again? Did they put their career first and realize only too late they’d neglected to hold their love life together? Have they grown and learned from their mistakes? Do they have regrets about how they may have handled things?
Once we have the answers to those questions, our characters cease to be a sketch. Now they’re mature and complicated human beings simply trying to find their way in the world. This is when things get really interesting. We know where they’ve been. Where will they take us next?
Photo courtesy of Flickr - Ion Chibzii from Chisinau, Moldova. - "Findings-out of relations" (youth of 60th years).. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution via Wikimedia Commons