Character Backgrounds: Yes or No?

There are heaps of articles, lists of questions, charts and what not, all for the purpose of developing characters. Next to plot (or before plot. That’s another discussion) the characters are the most important part of a novel. So, it seems they should be given special attention.

But how much? Is the 100 facts questioner, or in-depth character chart and backstory really necessary?

On this, I  can only speak from my personal experience.

Yes, I’ve done the “20 Things Your Reader Doesn’t Know About You Protagonist” or the “Character Chart with vaguefamilyhistory-worstfears-andwhattheyeatforbreakfast”. Yeah, I did that. I still have a bunch of half-empty character charts in my binder for the Green Crows.
But that’s the point. They are half-empty.

There were some things I could fill out. Age. That’s easy. Place of birth. Done.

What’s their favorite childhood memory? Um…no. Deepest fear? Nope. Greatest regret? That’s a weird question.
I couldn’t answer these questions. There was nothing there. It made me wonder, “Are my characters too shallow? Do I not know them at all? What am I missing?”

Nothing. I was missing nothing at all.

Because there are two problems with these “character backstory questions.”

1: They are not relevant.
Example: greatest regret. Sometimes there is a character where this is imperative to him. It is what pushes him on to overthrow the antagonists, or could be the antagonist itself.
And other times, regret is not a theme at all. That is when it becomes irrelevant. My character has regrets, sure, but do they make an appearance in the story? Are the regrets so much a part of the character that they affect his actions in the story? Because if not, I don’t need it. I don’t need to mention any regrets, because it would just be useless filler. And I don’t need to know his regrets because I’d be wasting my time making them up. If they do not actively affect the character, the answer to the question is irrelevant.

2: They are not realistic questions.
Example: Favorite childhood memory. Off the top of my head? Yeah, I don’t know what my own favorite childhood memory is. I could pull some favorites, but I don’t know if I could isolate just one.
That’s the problem. Some questions can be a little too existential. Because the fact is, regular people can’t always answer all the questions about them. Not everyone knows their deepest, and darkest fear, or what they most desire out of life. Some people are still trying to answer those questions. So in fact, seemingly underdeveloped characters, can actually be more realistic than seemingly developed ones.

This is how I have consoled myself with all those half empty charts. I realized I didn’t need them.

Now I know this won’t be the same for everyone. I think a lot of writers find in-depth backgrounds for their characters to be helpful (and fun). But I do want to throw this out there, that these are not the one and only way to develop characters, and maybe they can be more time consuming than anything else
And I want to say, for all writers that don’t like them (like me), that’t okay.


P.S Yes, it’s Valentine’s day. Actually, Saint Valentine’s day. This day is actually the feast day of St. Valentine, an early Church saint back from when the Romans still ruled the earth. Do some research people, this is not “National Chocolate and Hearts Day”. Thank you.
(Nice featured image, huh? Those are Barbarossa’s little orange elephant friends. As you have seen, I have an endless amount of animal figures. More are coming. Just you wait.)



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