Characters and Backstory

Olivia De Haviland (aka Melanie Hamilton Wilkes): Gone With the Wind. Photo is in the public domain. Can’t believe she’s 102 years old now!

In all my years of writing historical fiction, I’ve found one thing to be the most challenging, yet also fun. It’s writing a character’s biography.

We writers must write our characters’ biographies, at least all the major characters’ stories, in order to get to know them better. Oftentimes their personalities will surprise us, as well as their motivations, education, strengths, weaknesses, and so on. The more time we spend with them, the more they become our literary “friends.”

What is challenging, at least for me, is writing their backstory. Why? Because their backstory must be believable within its historical context as well as contribute to the character’s personality, motives, and so on.  

Let me use my home state, for example. If I write a story set in 1850s Mobile, Alabama, and use a character’s backstory (or even a flashback) set in 1817 Alabama, I cannot have a significant event happening to him in Montgomery, Alabama in that year, nor could he reach Montgomery by train.

Why not? For two reasons: (1) Alabama didn’t have railroads in 1818. He’d have probably traveled on horseback, in a wagon or carriage, or maybe a stagecoach, a common mode of travel during this era. (2) Montgomery wasn’t a city in 1817. In fact, it consisted of several small settlements. My character could visit one of these settlements and have a few critical events happen in his life there, but not in Montgomery. However, he could visit Montgomery in 1819 after two of the settlements incorporated to form the town.

To sum up, research the history, inventions, modes of travel, and so forth that surrounded our characters’ pasts as thoroughly as we do their present events. Because if their pasts aren’t historically accurate and believable, we’ll certainly lose readers.

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