Give Them A Past And A Future

A character does not begin to exist at the opening moment of the story. She has had a life, perhaps many years long. How has she come to be in this particular place at this instant in time?

The answer to this question is sometimes called the back story—in other words, the story that lies behind the one you are telling and provides a context for it. The back story is constructed out of the circumstances of the characters' three-dimensional lives. It includes their key relationships, their formative experi ences and memory-making moments. Obviously you won't include all these details in your story; you may not even be aware of some of the back story except subconsciously. The points from the back story that come forward into your current narrative should be those that have a bearing on the present events. But knowing the back story will help you understand your characters and their current behavior and give them extra depth.

Just as you want to give readers the sense that your characters have their own rich history, you want us to feel that they will continue to live once the story is over. For your central character especially, the story provides a stepping stone from the past into the future. The events that transpire should have an effect on her, changing her in some way, causing her to learn or grow. Depending on the story, the change could be small, almost unnoticeable, or it could be huge—anything from a brief flicker of insight to a shift in a relationship to a major alteration of lifestyle. At the end of the story the protagonist is not quite the same person she was when it began.

For every character, even minor ones, try to create the impression that he or she has an existence beyond the confines of the page. Readers should believe in the possibility that an interesting story could be built around any one of them; this just happens to be the story you're choosing to tell for now.

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