When you stop to think about it, all of us are largely products of our history. We make decisions based to a large extent on our experiences up to that point, and our experiences are influenced by the choices of those close to us – who are making their choices based on their experiences. And so on, all the way back to the first sexually dimorphic organisms. Probably. Possibly further, since even asexually reproducing organisms can be affected by environment and then have that impact propagate through their clones.

The writerly term for this is backstory.

Most authors will figure out the backstory of their main characters, along with some key bits of their minor characters, but it go so wrong its either hilarious or horrible depending on your perspective. And by hilarious or horrible, I mean stuff like granddad who’s eighty or so and has vivid memories of the Napoleonic wars. And the US Civil War. Oh, and it’s late 20th century, and granddad isn’t immortal.

I believe the kindest way to describe this is “um”ย.

Now, okay, you’re probably not going to do that in a contemporary setting. But you can certainly cram that much living into a character backstory if you’re not careful. Partly it’s the convenience of having granddad able to tell your main characters cool stories about stuff they didn’t experience which turn out to be really useful even though they’ve been groaning to themselves every time granddad starts the whole “When I was a lad…”ย or “Back in the day…” But there’s only so much, “well… he gets a bit confused, you know,”ย you can push through. Overdo it, and instead of being pulled into your wonderful story, your readers will be wondering when granddad found time to have kids. And what grandma thought about him being off fighting monsters or wars or whatever all the time.

See, even in the most turbulent eras, there are usually bursts of “ohshitohshitohshitI’mgonnadie!” interspersed with a lot of relatively peaceful times. Even a really adventurous character probably doesn’t spend all his/her/its time battling monsters, slaying princesses and rescuing evil. Um. Or something. More likely there’s going to be a few months of high adventure with several years between times recovering, training for the next adventure, and investing the spoils of the last one (or just spending it and having way too much fun with the persons of negotiable virtue until said spoils run out and another adventure becomes a financial necessity).

Heck, even in the most war-torn areas, it’s not really battles all the time (World War 1 was something of an anomaly) in any single spot. Long sieges were rare enough to be noteworthy, and battles rarely lasted more than a few days. Even during World War 1, actually – as I understand it, the trenches were manned continuously, there’d be as close to constant artillery barrage as possible, but at the same time people were being rotated in and out all the time so an individual soldier would spend maybe a month on the front lines for every three months in the area (I’m dredging this from the stainless steel lint trap of my memory so the details might be fuzzy. If not completely wrong. But the general idea isn’t) – most individual combat engagements weren’t that long.

The point being that no matter how neat that character’s backstory is, if it involved almost non-stop adventure and said character is now elderly and relatively sane, they ain’t human. And that’s presuming you got the chronology right.

I’m not saying you need to write a biography of every named character in your books. You don’t. You do need to have some notes so you don’t accidentally regress someone’s age between novels or have Fred remember doing the thing that George did in book 1. You might not remember, but I promise you at least one fan will.

Now that I’ve managed 600 words or so of digression, I was going to say something about how character attitudes and reactions rise from their past experiences, but you know what? My recent past experiences include a cat with bowel issues, a major software release, and all the cleaning up – metaphorical and physical – both entail. I’m not sure I could manage to return to the topic and post anything sensible.

I guess that will be another post.


  1. Back stories, so much fun. It’s also good to have an idea about certain things. Length of wars, length of training, travel times, other variables as well. Going to need to work on stuff.

    1. Length of training often depends on when said training began, even for the same organization. USAF Basic training was 6 weeks long back when I went through in 1977. Today it’s 8 weeks long. (And personally, the product isn’t as good.)

  2. Off Topic Kate, but I remember this short story set in a college.

    A group of students had a professor who was always giving accurate info on various topics with a comment of “I learned this thanks to being {somewhere} for a couple of years”.

    The students added up all of his “a couple of years” and realized that their professor had to be older than humanly possible.

    Note, they had already liked this professor so realizing this only increased their approval of the professor. ๐Ÿ˜€

    1. If that somewhere was always the same place, that’s not a problem. Or if he has a minor rounding error where more than one and less than 2 are consistently rounded up to “a couple”. It is a problem if 1 month mutates into 1 year, or 6 months into 6 years. Of course that’s objective time. Subjective time is oh so variable.

  3. My husband has a rule for this, at least so far as people trying to impress you in a bar: if they’ve got more than one amazing rare thing they did for every year they’ve been alive, they’re fI’ll of crap. ๐Ÿ˜€ Maybe that can work here too?

    1. Most of the people i know who have done that level of amazing rare things…

      The stories all start “No shit, there i was….”

      … and generally, details are glossed over for opsec.

    2. Or main characters in an episodic television show. LAPD patrol car, callsign “One Adam Twelve” was an entire police department…

  4. Re: all bad all the time. One of the most demoralizing things for civilians during that “lovely” period called the Thirty Years War was that the armies would sweep through a few times, eat or burn out everything, and leave for a few years. Just as everyone got the pieces reassembled and dared to hope for two decent crops in a row, here came the armies again, back from where they’d been fighting (and that had run out of food). Thus it started in Bohemia/Austria/Bavaria, then swept north, then south, then west into the Rhineland. There are depressing diaries where the last few entries are a resigned sort of “We all went into the woods again. One cow left. But at least we aren’t as bad as Magdeburg.” Many of those eventually survived, but lost neighbors and family.

    1. Beat me to it! The Thirty Years War is still the gold standard for war spreading human suffering around lavishly, isn’t it? Though I have to admit I haven’t studied it as you have – I’m really just generalizing from its occurrence in German literature.

      1. Oh yes. Some regions (Rhineland, esp. southern) never recovered their pre-war population until after WWII. And the siege and sack of Magdeburg is still the single worst (and most studied) example of what can happen when the besieged lose. Yes, you can look at Stalingrad and Leningrad, but in terms of what happened when the Imperial army finally broke in? Ugk.

    2. Ah, Bohemia. Lot of Housts in that area. One of the reasons that I suspect my great, great grandfather was actually Bohemian and not really northern German. Became decidedly unhealthy for him to live in that area which is now part of the Czech Republic.

  5. Another thing to remember, before the 20th Century, even in time of war, disease killed more troops than actual combat.

  6. On the other hand, you can have extreme time dilation in an exciting event. I ended up fighting a wildfire while I was a summer camp counselor, and I remember thing after thing that happened during the time period in between the first sign (other staff members running past, no running in camp) and the Forest Service arriving with their hose that could pump from the lake and taking over, and I would swear that it was hours and hours of time. Except it wasn’t. Every last one of those details happened in less than an hourโ€”an hour, moreover, where the camp director AND second-in-command were not in camp (the program director having taken the boat over to pick up the camp directorโ€”something that only takes half an hour or so, plus any load time for the things he’d picked up.)

    So sometimes “I spent a couple of years doing X” is just a reflection of how long it felt, rather than actual timing. Most people don’t bother to do the double-check to find out how long something actually was.

  7. Should I hide all of the world building notes I’ve done where I figure out when a character was born, then work out ancestral generations and events? ๐Ÿ™‚

    *Checks notes* Hmm, I only really have about one of these in what seems to be a year’s worth of notes. And eleven generations of backstory is actually critical to the concept. Except that I didn’t check any of the spreadsheets, and had a bunch of concepts in the text files that came close. Still, I probably have been changing how I work, because I need emotion and plot to actually get anything done.

    1. And is it due to genes, a magical elixir of life, magic spells, sciency life prolongation treatments, the act of a deity? Are there more out there like him? ๐Ÿ™‚

          1. Alternately: “Sigh. Granddad used to read all kinds of history books, but somewhere along the line, he decided he was actually present for the events that he read about. And sometimes they get jumbled up. One of his stories has Roman chariots in what was clearly a Revolutionary War battle.”

            1. I was born about ten thousand years ago,
              There ain’t nothin’ in this world that I don’t know.
              I saw Peter, Paul, and Moses
              Playin’ ring-around-the-roses,
              ‘n I can whup the man that says it isn’t so…

  8. World building includes spending hours figuring out how long it takes a plasma weapon in a geosynchronous, equatorial orbit to strike a target at Hudson’s Bay.

    I didn’t -need- to spend hours, because nobody cares about stuff like that. Other people here at Chez Phantom rolled their eyes when I announced the result. But being the weirdo that I am, it mattered to me. So transit times for energy weapons in my books will tend to be fairly close, without using calculus. (I suck at it. Can’t remember any of it now.)

  9. I never believed MacGyver could have had as many ex-girlfriends (serious girlfriends, that he almost married) that showed up during the course of the show.

    1. There is a joke about the immense graveyard in back of the ranch in “Bonanza” where all the almost-fiancees are buried ๐Ÿ˜€

      1. *snicker*
        Yes, that place was hard on fiancees … (yeah, phrase deliberate for the dirty-minded.)
        I worked up a month-and-year spreadsheet to keep track of all that stuff for the Adelsverein Trilogy – and continued it for the other books. How old characters were in any year, what had been going on in other places. When children were born, when their parents had met and done the deed. Totally essential.
        Besides – it gives the characters something to talk about with regard to current events, when they meet at any certain place and time.

      1. Thing is that Spillane could have made that into a story if he’d wanted.
        Mike Hammer starts thinking about the guys he served with back in the war, then realizes that a lot of them have died in untimely fashion. Then he remembers that one time…

        1. Don’t forget the extreme numbers of murders in the little town of Cabot Cove Maine that Jessica Fletcher got to solve.

          Or all the murders that happened around Jessica Fletcher when she traveled outside of Cabot Cove.

          ๐Ÿ˜ˆ ๐Ÿ˜ˆ ๐Ÿ˜ˆ ๐Ÿ˜ˆ

  10. I like putting together the notes and backstory – kind of like GM’s guide to your fictional setting; but I think of them as the ‘author help guide’ because yeah, you’ll forget things while writing.

    ^^: the problem is stopping and actually writing the story!

  11. As for keeping track, I’ve a list of characters by year of birth, each listing including parents and children and personal details like hair color if mentioned. Maps.

    But my most valuable resource, Beta Readers who delight in pointing out inconsistencies.

  12. “I mean stuff like granddad who’s eighty or so and has vivid memories of the Napoleonic wars. And the US Civil War. Oh, and it’s late 20th century, and granddad isn’t immortal.”

    General Patton, had he survived to become a grandfather, would have disagreed with you:

    by Gen. George S. Patton, Jr.

    Through the travail of the ages,
    Midst the pomp and toil of war,
    Have I fought and strove and perished
    Countless times upon this star.

    In the form of many people
    In all panoplies of time
    Have I seen the luring vision
    Of the Victory Maid, sublime.


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