I love character-driven stories. I love characters. Imaginary people that come *this* close to taking on a life on their own? It’s practically witchcraft. But how important is nailing down their appearance, history and family tree before you start?
For me, it’s very important (not necessarily in Tolkien-esq who begat whom format), because until I know everything about my character, I don’t feel confident enough to write their story.
Some characters waltz onto the page fully-formed, their appearance solid in my head, along with their mannerisms and how they take their tea. Case and point: Harend and Keladan. Both appeared out of thin air and I’m grateful that they did. Everything from their hair colour, clothes, and way of speaking came with them.
Others take a while to come out of themselves. Jonathon, in my WIP, didn’t even have a name for a long time, so although I was designing his world and a major plot point for him, I didn’t have a springboard for him. In the end, it was Jonathon’s parents who arrived before he did, defining his upbringing and forming him into the character I love.
Sometimes, characters evolve before they hit the page. Or even mid-sentence. Destian hid his scathing side from me until he was written, but now I can’t see him any other way. Key, once so cold and heartless in The Scrap Yard, turned into a caring soul once he had the elbow-room of a novel to stretch out in.
One of the best resources for chatacter building that I have experienced was Bernadine Evaristo’s RSL Masterclass on Character. One of the exercises involved thinking of a character. But not their story – at least, not what would end up in your novel. We focussed on their backstory of the character. Because, and I agree completely, what had happened to the character before we see them has to have a bearing on how the character behaves by the time we see them.
Some backstories never get told. Destian’s story is so long, that to tell his centuries-long life would be a novel in itself. Vincent’s history is unknown, even by himself. But to me, it doesn’t matter if a character’s history gets explained or not. It still exists. In their universe, in their book, it still happened, regardless of whether we see a flashback or hear a story. The events we don’t see shape the characters we do see.