Getting to Know You: Character Backstories
Writing teachers and critics talk about flat characters and round characters. Writers should have some grasp of the concept, too.
A flat character is one without many characteristics, one that can be easily summed up in a word or phrase: "Nosy." "Gruff but lonely." "Intimidating." Flat characters rarely surprise the reader.
A round character is a complex one with many characteristics, often contradictory ones. Round characters seem more real, and they can keep the reader in suspense when faced with important decisions or actions because they are not predictable.
There's a place for flat characters. They can be very vivid and memorable, and they populate the background of a story nicely. Even important characters can be flat - many of Charles Dickens's important characters never surprise us at all but linger in the memory. Raymond Chandler's Moose Malloy is flat, and yet he's easily pictured and has a major impact on the story.
Round characters are more useful as major or very important secondary characters. However, they have to be complex. A character who is naturally timid but who holds a strong value, for example, can decide to stand his or her ground and be brave, just this once. We can sense internal conflicts and complications inside such a character.
Huckleberry Finn, who has been convinced by his whole society that his helping Jim, a runaway slave, is wrong must balance that conviction against his increasing friendship with and respect for Jim. At a crucial point, when Huck has to decide what's best for Jim, remaining a prisoner in the Deep South or being returned home to his despised life as a slave, sweats over the dilemma.
However, being complex, he recognizes a third, unthinkable choice: helping Jim break out and remain free. He sincerely believes if he does that, he is committing the unpardonable sin and will be sent to hell.
Against all his training and assumptions, he says, "All right, then, I'll go to hell." And the moment is believable because he is a round character.
In preparing to write a story, it helps to get inside the characters' minds and look at their biases, their beliefs, their agendas. What pushes their buttons?
Try this: Make up a set of at least twenty questions. The early ones in the set should establish the basic appearance and surroundings of the character: hair and eye color, height and weight, place of birth, family, and so on.
The later ones delve into the character's mind: Biggest regret? Secret wish? Greatest fear? Most valued possession? Greatest need?
Out of those comes character. And out of character comes story.