Exploring Character Backstories

“It’s all about creating a back story for the character and developing emotional responses that are true to life in relation to that character. It isn’t necessary to live a tragic life to create from that place.”

– Corin Nemec

The art of story-telling is a compound and multi-faceted thing; and in one such facet lies an essential, foundational part of the structure: characters.

And branching from the core segment that is Characters, is the art and challenge of carving out backstories. After all, a character doesn’t just pop into existence on the first page of a novel (or the opening sequence of a series or film). That moment may be the first time we, the viewers, come to be aware of the character’s existence. But, that is not the moment the character first exists.

To ensure that a character is as real and complex in their world as we are in ours requires the creator to explore and shape parts of the years and events that have brought the character to the present; the connect-the-dot dots in their past; the defining elements of their backstory. In essence, mapping out what the character has lived through in the years and experiences of their lives all the way up to the moment the readership/ audience meets them and begins to follow alongside them in the story now unfolding.

In saying that, backstories need not be novel-sized in the accumulation of events and relationships. Most of what a creator will forge and collect for a character’s backstory will never make it into the present-day story of the character’s life (as given to the reader/ audience). But creating layered elements of backstory will be a valuable source for you, the creator, to tap into in order to forge convincing and interesting characterisations for each of your characters. Backstories are the root system out from which grows a character’s disposition, motives, beliefs, interpretations of outer influences and the behaviour of others; it feeds into what they are seeking, hoping for, frightened of, angered by …

If it isn’t obvious by now, I love creating and expounding characters, and I equally enjoy bringing them to life through my particular art style! 😉

One of my (currently) most beloved characters is an individual whose story, really, is not even canonically told (yet). Vastien Chevalier. He continues to be an irresistable target for my creative psyche, enough that I’ve invested quite a lot of time into moulding him and exploring all the ins and out of his person.

Noble, Gentleman, Charmer, Masquerader, Liar, Vigilante; Vastien contains many facets, shaped by his backstory.

Which is fascinating, to say the least, primarily because of how different we are from one another.

It is this sort of deep-diving and emersion that proves an excellent way for a creator (like myself) to explore reasonings and motives that are quite unlike my own. It’s a form of empathy exercise; to be working on the layers of an individual so wholly different from oneself. And it is an essential part of story-telling.

And that is Vastien to me; my current exercise partner in empathy development. A very different individual from me in many ways. How he behaves and reacts to others and to his surroundings; how he has allowed the events of his past to shape him. How he perceives certain things, including how he sees himself. And much of what and how he currently is has been shaped by the years past; by the family dynamics, wealth status, societal interactions, schooling, joyful influences, traumas, milestone events, and, of course, the innate traits and inclinations he, in his uniqueness as an individual, leads into.

Triggers stir memories of past traumas, which stir up deep-seated emotions, which result in a visceral response.

He is the result of being forged through and by his backstory; including how he deals with (and allows a degree of influence from) past events and actions.

And that’s (a part of) what I was driven to explore when inspiration to create this special four-panel anime-styled piece hit me. I was fleshing out his perception of a complex issue: memories. And not just an everyday reminiscing, but something from his past that was extremely impactful, both in a good and bad way.

There is a bleakness in the colour pallet of his personal perception. Outwardly he exudes exceptional charisma with threads of jest and bravado. But the underlying ice layers are so much more complex, cold, and dark.

I am, by natural disposition, an overall optimistic and hopeful person. It’s so interesting, and grieving, to deep-dive into the soul of one who is neither of those things. But I am drawn in, enraptured by both his depth and his pain, and especially by the possibility that his story has the possibility of changing for the better … since his future is yet to be written.

And how about you, fellow readers and creators? I imagine you find it both thoughtfully challenging and deeply satisfying, excavating the intricacies of personalities and pasts that are different from your own.

But creating back stories for your characters is an integral part of making them weighty and real (both in the world they inhabit, and to the readers and viewers who get a chance to share in their journey).

Here are some backstory topics you may find helpful to assist in fleshing out your characters:

  • Familial Relationships
  • Place of Birth (and the standing of that nationality)
  • Social Status
  • Wealth Status
  • Childhood Friendships
  • Dominating Ideals of Influential Figures
  • Physical/ Emotional Traumas
  • Inborn Talents (and whether nutured or scorned)
  • Developed View of Greater Forces (Government, Nature, Dieties etc)
  • Milestone Events during Formative Years

So, I hope you enjoy this anime-style snippet of one of my fav characters, and a glimpse into a way I work on developing my character’s backstories.

NOTE: The background imagery for the anime panels is not my work, and belongs to the BlazBlue IP, owned by Arc Systems Works. But the additions of Vastien and angle changes (light filtering and cropping) is my own input, done purely as fan-based art.


About WhimsicalWerecat

In short - Creative extraordinaire, warrior princess, dragon-lover, anime enthusiast, partisan of fantastical things, and most assuredly and proudly peculiar!
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