Deepening Characters With Backstory

In my last blog post I talked about the character having two goals: internal and external. Today I want to go a bit deeper into the internal character goal. Much of this discussion is inspired by Lisa Cron’s fantastic craft book STORY GENIUS.

We humans all carry baggage from our past. If you are a devotee of Jungian psychology, you’ll note that digging into and confronting our past is one way to relieve our current problems. Jung called our past issues our “shadow”. As writers, it is essential that in order to bring characters truly to life we recognize their shadow past, or, as Cron calls it, their backstory wound.

The Effect of the Wound

When we start writing about a character, we need to understand that the wound has a long, deep-seated impact on that character. The character has adopted a protective shield from the wound of the past that Cron calls the misbelief. This misbelief has guided the character through life, protecting them from the things they fear.

Here’s an example. A young boy, while playing, falls into a deep well and is trapped; he is swarmed by bats while in this dark place which sets up an innate terror of bats and darkness. Later he witnesses the murder of his parents at the hands of a terrible villain, and his life after that is guided by a desire to deal with villains by assuming the shapes spawned by his own deep fears – darkness and bats.

The Batman

Batman adopts the shield of the very thing that he is afraid of and uses it as a disguise to avenge his parents’ murders through surrogacy – by ridding the world of anyone who might be a terrible villain. He is guided by the misbelief that he can truly rid the world of villains through adopting a dark demeanor, which sometimes leads him down his own dark path where he makes costly mistakes.

To Find Your Own Character’s Wound

Here’s a way to unearth your character’s backstory wound:

  • Write between three and five scenes from earlier in their life that could be considered wounding scenes. These can be anything from taunting and bullying to the death of a pet or loved one to something physical (like falling into a well, or suffering a natural disaster).
  • Pick the one that has the most emotional resonance for you and your character. Write it out in full.
  • Look for the shield or misbelief that the character might assume. For instance, bullying might lead your character to become an extreme weightlifter; death of a loved one might lead your character to avoid deep connections with other people; suffering a natural disaster might lead to over-preparedness (hoarding) or under-preparedness (“I can’t do anything about it so I’ll live on the edge”).

Once You Know the Wound…

Use it. Build the character’s internal journey around trying to avoid the wound (through the misbelief or shielding), until it’s essential that the character confront the wound and overcome it. Only when your character understands their wound and faces their misbelief – dropping the shield – will they succeed in the story you create for them.

Or, only when Batman realizes that he’s making mistakes and confronts the reason why, will he succeed in defeating the evil around him.

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2 Responses to “Deepening Characters With Backstory”

  1. Linda W.

    BATMAN BEGINS is one of my favorite movies. I love how the director/co-writer developed Bruce Wayne’s complex personality, as you mentioned here. Thank you for reminding me of how a great story deals with a character’s wound. I think that is what has bothered me about some of the books I’ve read in recent years. The characters have seemed strong and confident—without any sort of wound. I couldn’t relate to many of them, so I stopped reading those books.

    • Janet

      Thanks, Linda – I found BATMAN BEGINS dark but so interesting for that very reason. And you’re right, vanilla heroes are not interesting. As always thanks for reading and responding!