Writing Tips #2 Character Backgrounds

March 31, 2017 Sean Catt

Today’s writing tip post is not about me showcasing my Photoshop skills (more about that in a while). No, it’s all about building lifelike character backgrounds. Having characters that your readers can relate to is vital, as it helps to ground the story thus making it more believable.

First and foremost, when developing a new character I use a character reference sheet (the one I use, can be found in the media>downloads section of this website) to build up the background of my principle character(s). Reference sheets really do allow you to put flesh on the bones of your characters. Have a look at mine and you will see what I mean, and if you like it use it (it’s free, and free is good), tell your friends about it, shout it from the rooftops!

Another thing I find very useful, is to construct family trees for all main character backgrounds, the tree may consist of: parents, siblings, grandparents, uncles/aunts and possibly cousins, it’s something you can take as far as you think you need for that character. I use an excellent piece of free software called ‘My Family Tree‘ which is very easy to use and you can keep your charts really simple or add all sorts of information and even photos. There are of course many other similar software programs out there, I’d recommend experimenting until you find one you like.

One nice thing about using a family tree is that it’s so visual, at a glance you can check on characters names.There’s nothing worse than discovering that halfway through the book you started calling poor old Joshua, Joseph instead.
While we’re on the subject of names, I pick a name that takes into account the character’s ethnicity, their nationality, etc, etc, but most of all I give them a name that I think suits them as a person. For example, Arthur gives a totally different slant to a character than if he’d been called Darius, the same applies to women’s names, Gertrude V’s Tiffany. One pet hate I have, is where in some Sci Fi or Fantasy novels/stories the author gives their characters names that are nigh on impossible to pronounce which means you either have to beep over them (like you did as a little kid when you came to¬† words you couldn’t pronounce. Yes, I understand that on the planet Zog you are unlikely to find too many Bills or Debbies, but purrrlease… Kygtankdyjlin or his brother, Kygtankdyxlin… really?

So, back to the script… Knowing if people are still alive is handy too. It stops you managing to resurrect someone’s dear departed granny, unless of course you are writing about zombies then bringing people back from the dead is fine, in fact it’s positively de rigueur for the genre.

The other thing I personally like, is being able to see where my characters live. Once I have an idea of the type of place they live in I trawl Google Street View and do image searches on the interwebs. I admit to being a little obsessive over this this bit of research, and I often photoshop the image(s) until I end up with something that I feel is right.

Currently I’ve started writing the first installment of a series of short stories about two anthro characters called Spike and Joel. Now Spike lives on the edge of a large town in Essex in England in a pretty rough, end of terrace, Victorian cottage belonging to his boss.
After a lot of searching I found the perfect house, and here it is:
Spike's house before photo



image courtesy of Google Street View

Unfortunately, it was in the wrong location and faced the wrong way.

After a lot of Photoshopping I ended up with a house just how I envisioned it to look.





I like to draw up floor plans of houses, apartments or places of work, etc so that I know where all the rooms/areas are in relation to each other, the doors, stairs, etc.

When developing character backgrounds you don’t have to go to excessive lengths like I do regarding where my characters live, that like I said earlier is just me being a bit obsessive. But you must ensure your characters have life (unless your still with the zombies).
I also try to choose the right car for my characters (if they drive). The type of car a person drives can say a lot about them.

Just remember: