Giving Your Character a Past

© 2011 Vonda Skelton

I was recently asked to play the role of a psychiatric patient. For this part (which wasn’t even filmed, so don’t look for an Academy Award nomination), I was surprised to discover I had to learn not only details of my character’s health but that of her family as well. I knew I’d have to memorize her symptoms, but I didn’t think about knowing her family structure and their relationships. Other details addressed her eating habits, alcohol and drug use, and encounters with the opposite sex. I studied her childhood, knew her sleep patterns, and memorized her medications.

The more I prepared to play my character, the better I knew her. She became real to me. Her housing situation, job description, and exercise routine made sense. As I prepared for my role, her dress, speech, and mannerisms became my own. Before long, I could see how she arrived at her specific emotional state. I knew her baggage, her longings, her disappointments.

And then I realized I cared about her. I wanted her to get well. I was in her corner . . . because I knew her.

You may be asking what all this has to do with writing. Well, the preparation to play the role was very similar to the preparation we must make as fiction writers: We must give our characters a detailed past.

If we want readers to care about our characters, we have to make them come alive. Where do they live? Where did they live as children? Did the siblings get along growing up? Did they live in a loving environment, or were they abused? What about the character’s personality traits? Is she good at math? Is she a hard worker or a lazy sloth? Can he sing? Play the piano? Run fast? Does she like tofu? Greasy cheeseburgers? Steamed vegetables?

If we want readers to cheer for our characters, we must create histories and share information that draw readers in and compel them to stay with us for 300 or so pages. And even if we don’t plan to write every little detail into the book, we need to know every little detail in order to transform her into a real person.

Create vivid, three-dimensional characters with detailed pasts and emotional garbage and you’ll be on your way to selling your novel. Create cardboard cutouts with mundane lives and limited histories and your manuscript will end up in the rejection pile.

Vonda Skelton‘s humor and insight make her a popular speaker at women’s events and writers’ conferences. More than 15,000 school students have learned about writing through her Writing Is Fun! workshops. She has published a nonfiction book, Seeing through the Lies: Unmasking the Myths Women Believe, three children’s mystery books and numerous articles and stories. To check out Vonda’s speaking schedule or subscribe to her informative writers’ newsletter, visit






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