I would love to say I always take the time to develop backstory but that would be untrue. What I can tell you is that when I do take the time, I always learn something that makes the story more meaningful to me and pushes me to be a better storyteller.
One of my very favorite ways to develop backstory and therefore deepen my understanding of the story is interviewing. I get together with a trusted friend, one whom I know is interested in helping me be a better artist, and I tell them just a little bit about the story I'm working on. I give them a general outline of events and characters. Then I select one of the characters and invite them to ask me questions as if they were interviewing the character.
I do this only with trusted allies because I need to know I won't be interrupted while I answer and that they will let me think my answers through. The interviewer needs to let the subject remain in charge of the interview.
Once the ground rules are set, we begin. Typical questions might include:
- What is your name? Why were you named that?
- Do you have any siblings?
- Who was your best friend when you were young?
- What do you think of so-and-so (another character from the story)?
- What makes you happy?
- Do you have any career goals?
Sometimes you'll uncover something that might be a real story-changer or may lead you to a new story entirely, a piece of backstory you didn't expect. My first-person telling of Hansel and Gretel from the witch's perspective came out of one of these exercises. This technique extends far beyond traditional material. Try it with a personal story or something out of the public domain. It can get pretty silly but it just about always yields some kind of new information about the character or story. You may not need to share this information with your audience but it might change how you present a character or a situation. For instance, did you know the Big Bad Wolf used to keep kosher?
I'd love to know how this works for you.
(c)2016 Laura S. Packer