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Fiction Ingredients – Add a Pinch of History

Author Editor Annette Youngby Annette Young

Fiction may be dreamed up and coaxed out of your imagination, but there are still vital ingredients that can serve to bring your story to life. Think about the characters, would you like them to be larger than life? Would you like to create 3 dimensional beings that incite dedicated followers? I am sure that the answer is a resounding yes, after all, what author doesn’t want to hook the readers with characters who seem living, breathing entities? To do so, it’s good to create a back story for your characters – especially for the protagonist. We all have a history, some of us have a more vibrantly coloured past than others but the great thing is, you get to play God with your characters and you can make their histories as naughty, fun or painful as you like.

I always advocate the creation of profiles for each of the main characters. I believe it helps writers remember what’s happened to a character in the past and why that character might act in a certain way in the present, but it does something else too, it enables the writer to fully connect with the characters on a deeper level and this equates to writing with confidence. Believe me; your readers will love you for it.

You won’t be able to capture (or think of ) all of their histories at once but, your profile should be a work in progress because you can add to it, amend it, delete sections or add interesting snippets capturing elements to look out for in the future. Once you have an idea of your character, just commit to writing it all down, or do as I do now and dictate using Dragon Software. It was a little odd hearing myself initially but after a while, it became much easier to capture all my thoughts or notions and even though I am a very fast typist, I can capture verbal words a lot quicker than thinking and typing.

Don’t worry about spelling or any grammatical errors; you can go back over it afterwards. Let’s be honest, if the words are flowing, just get them down.

Think about your character’s early years:

  • When was the character born?
  • What does the character look like? List any distinguishing features
  • Early character traits
  • Was it a difficult birth?
  • As a baby, was the character neglected or smothered with love?
  • Did the mother resent the character baby because he/she was the wrong sex?

These are just random examples of course but you can do a lot from this starting point and are likely to be more thorough if starting at the creation of life, rather than looking back. Once your imagination kicks in, you may find you end up with a lot of waffle and if so, just delete it. For example:

  • Jimmy likes cheesecake

This is unlikely to be that important to the story unless you know you will be writing a scene where cheesecake plays an important part, so instead consider something like this:

  • Jimmy had always detested wearing odd socks. His mother was a drunk and rarely kept the house in good order; the last thing on her mind was washing and mending clothes. Jimmy remembered how the other children mocked him about his odd socks-it made him feel like he didn’t belong, he became introverted and was bullied. Jimmy hated his mother and the feeling grew worse as he got older. As an adult, her lack of care now made him extra careful with his whole attire – fastidious in fact. Jimmy became a man of extremes.

From this you can see that a simple and seemingly irrelevant act could lead to the character becoming slightly eccentric or, over-the-top in his behaviour later in life. This could even spill over into his relationships if he married someone who was similar to his mother- even divorce, accidental death or murder if he suddenly snapped at his wife’s careless and inconsiderate washing habits. Extreme? Well, yes but who knew odd socks could be so powerful a trigger?

What happens in the past really will reflect on the present and indeed the future. Other things to consider:

  • Allergies – peanuts
  • Parental influences – good and bad
  • Fears – terrified of the dark as was trapped in a cupboard
  • Friends – loyal and those who let the character down
  • Relationships – love, betrayal and inner angst

The more you know about your characters, the more persuasive your writing will become. You don’t have to dish out every bit of information in your novel, sometimes less is more, but you know why you are writing a scene and will be able to portray it convincingly when you have the benefit of history. Writing a novel or any long work of fiction requires an intimate knowledge of your key players so by adding in their histories, you will be adding a sense of richness to the story-line.


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