Recently, I read the opening of an early draft by a writer beginning her first novel. In her first chapter, my new writer friend showed me the upstate New York landscape through which her main character, a widow named Carrie, was riding, on a rickety wagon, behind two smelly horses. I could see the flat trail, the hills, the barn with its sagging roof, the stream, and the lantern held by her late husband’s uncle as she arrived at her destination. But in order for her heroine to feel unique and interesting, I needed more of her internal landscape, her emotional and psychological essence, her particularity, her individuality.
Why is individuality important? A reader wants to be brought on an emotional journey. For that, we need a protagonist with a profound and unique emotional life and a strong, significant emotional backstory. Hints at this backstory in early chapters provide the biggest enticement to keep reading. Let’s say we have a middle-aged woman named Joyce who pulls into a parking lot, looks at a Harley motorcycle and is overcome with tears, which she fights back, so her nineteen-year-old niece, in the passenger seat, doesn’t see. Our curiosity is immediately piqued: What happened in her past that Joyce would have such a strong response to something so mundane? Was someone she loved in a motorcycle accident? Her brother? The girl’s father? Or maybe the last time Joyce felt free and happy was a cross-country bike trip when she was 18? What’s going on in her life now that causes that memory to resurface? Why is Joyce so intent on protecting her niece? Or does she always hide her feelings? There are a myriad of possibilities. What’s important to recognize is that when characters have strong (or unexpected or strange) feelings—or why they don’t, when it seems like they should—it will pique the reader’s curiosity, which is the best sort of hook.
Crafting a character's Perceptual Context is something that takes a while; it evolves unevenly and gradually, as if from rough sketch to completed drawing.
I'd suggest that before you get too far into your story, make sure each character’s Perceptual Context is at least roughed out pretty well. I know from experience that this saves time in the long run! More than once, as I approach the middle of my novel, I've found the action slowing and meandering and coming to a grinding halt because I didn't develop my characters enough beforehand.
It also took me some time to discover a series of exercises that help me create this Perceptual Context (complete with backstory), and I wanted to share some of them here in the hopes they might help someone else along.
So ... after you have that first, exciting idea, and a chapter or two drafted, maybe step away from your manuscript, take a separate piece of paper (I do this longhand, on a legal pad, but a separate word doc works, too) and, if you haven’t already, sketch the Perceptual Context and write out a big, bold backstory for each character. (Note: I add to this PC Page as I write my manuscript, and often pieces of it change; that’s part of the process.) Let yourself come up with wacky events and maybe some eccentric relatives, which you can then cross out later, if you want. Write it in the first person, using “I” (even if your book is not going to be in first person) and begin to listen for the character’s unique language.
Each character has her own language, level of diction, vocabulary, metaphors, and tics. How someone perceives and describes their world will reveal something about their Perceptual Context. That is, ideally, descriptions provided by the character will provide two kinds of information: something about what the character is looking at (the dusty long trail that took all day to travel, say) and something about their Perceptual Context. A farmer might say: That day was as tiring as a fall harvest day when you know rain is coming! A race car driver might say: That was worse than 500 times around a track! My new writer friend has the widow Carrie describe a barn as having a swayback roof “like last year’s Christmas bunting.” That is a great example of showing (instead of “telling” us) something about her Perceptual Context. From these few words, we can infer that Carrie is a Christian, she celebrates Christmas, and she has (or had) enough material wealth to hang bunting. It hints at some other aspects of her Perceptual Context too: maybe she’s feeling wistful about last year and those memories are still fresh because they’re the last time she was happy?
Another way of illuminating the Perceptual Context is to show what a character notices in her environment. Unlike a movie camera panning across a scene, in writing, authors pick and choose what we represent. For example, an 18-year-old bike mechanic will notice the make of the Harley in the parking lot; a middle-aged woman probably wouldn’t—or if she does, that hints at an interesting element of her backstory. On the other hand, she might notice the pink baby-stroller in the back of a pickup truck because she used to have one, or because she bought one for her daughter but never gave it to her because the daughter had a miscarriage. Her backstory will shape what she notices as well as how she describes it.
Each character will have what I call verbal “tics,” which are often influenced by experience, gender, class, nationality, and education. They include aspects such as whether the characters curse out loud (or to themselves), use “ain’t” or “I seen” or drop the “h” on words, choose polysyllabic versus simple words, employ specialized vocabulary (medical, scientific, botanical, artistic, etc.), or drop a foreign word into internal dialogue. You learn something about a character if she says “I’d prefer not to” as opposed to “Nah, not for me”; or if a character describes a couch as “a Queen Anne-style chaise.”
Another technique is to write what each character did before chapter 1 begins. Have them describe the last week, or even the arc of their life, in general terms. If my friend’s young widow is arriving in a small town in upstate New York, to stay with her late husband’s uncle, what did the uncle do for the day before she arrived? Write it from his perspective. What is he thinking/feeling/accomplishing? Some of it will have nothing at all to do with her imminent arrival because each character has to have his/her own goals, desires, and motives, apart from the main character, or they run the risk of being mere cardboard “types,” flat and uninteresting.
Go ahead and play the “what-if” backstory game, which naturally leads to what I call the emotional undercurrents in scenes. In my friend’s story, what if the uncle thinks his nephew (Carrie’s late husband) was an abusive, unethical man who never deserved her? How will that affect how he feels about Carrie and how much he wants to help her? Maybe he wants to make up for his nephew’s evilness? Or … what if the uncle loved his nephew very much (partly because he never had kids of his own—there’s a story there, too) but his nephew knew his uncle has made a Significant Mistake in his past (maybe he had a bad temper when he drank, or a bad gambling habit), so the nephew always kept the uncle at arm’s length? Does the uncle worry that Carrie knows about his past and feels ashamed in front of her—and so greets Carrie with a forced, large warmth … and then Carrie finds herself wanting to reassure him that she doesn’t judge him because she’s made plenty of mistakes of her own?
Lastly, childhood experiences are expected to shape the Perceptual Context. Childhood often produces the most definitive and intractable aspects of a character, and I’d suggest you give yourself lots of time to figure this out. As a simple example, let’s say you have a character who, beginning at age 5, had a mother who would vanish for a month at a time, returning without fanfare, pretending she’d never left. This would create in a child a sense of uncertainty, mistrust, and anxiety. That sort of baggage doesn’t (usually) vanish merely because a character becomes an adult. It will shape her interactions with everyone she meets, and in every situation. Someone who tends to be mistrustful will perceive even a neutral statement differently than someone who is trusting.
What I have found is that when I know my characters well enough, I can put two of them together in a room, and they will talk to each other and move around, and all I have to do is observe and write it down.
Knowing your characters this well will also help you clarify and hint early on what the character’s arc needs to be. What does she need to change about herself (often, what mistaken belief, what piece of her faulty Perceptual Context does she need to abandon) in order to achieve her goal by the end?
As a last note: 90% of the backstory and Perceptual Context that I write out on those legal pads never makes it into the manuscript. But I find it has to be in my head as I write, or the characters don’t come off as well as they might. Don’t worry if it seems a waste of time to have wads of material you never explicitly include. As you write, it’s feathering its way in.
I hope this helps you, as you begin to understand your characters. I welcome all feedback on this short essay, as I am always developing ideas for workshops and lectures. Please feel free to comment below or send me an email at email@example.com. Thanks for reading!