I’m not sure what I expected when we started writing Uncivil Wars. The first book, Loyalties, came so easily. I knew exactly where my characters came from, where they were going and who they were. I had spent years developing Cole and Harry. Writing them was second nature. I knew exactly how they’d act in any given situation.
I thought I knew Diego, too. I had been writing him for as long as the other two. All three had been created at the same time — so why was my Cajun wolf-man being so difficult this time around?
A Man of Mystery To Everyone…including the author
Diego Lafayette Beauchamp first popped into my head nearly ten years ago. His inspiration was a mix of friends I’d known from Louisiana, Quebec and one particular episode of Trading Spouses. He was created for an online game where I needed a hard-nosed mentor who had years of experience as a shifter. His job was to bring the newbie cubs into the pack and get them adjusted to their new lives.
Although I never fully fleshed out his background, I knew he had a dodgy past. He was basically a good man at heart, but there were a lot of skeletons in that closet. All of it things he’d rather not discuss and as far as he could see, there wasn’t any need to do that. Diego kept himself buried in his job and duty to his own Pack just to keep the pain at bay. Everything he did was a distraction and on a deeper level, a much needed shot at redemption.
Diego wasn’t exactly a villain, but he was no saint either.
Foggy Past = Foggy Future
This mystery was all well and good for the game, but not so much for a novel. Writing for a game without end is very different than writing for something that does have a very clear ending. The mystery worked well in the first book, too. After all, he was supposed to be mysterious to his Pack and to the readers. Those blanks in his history were perfect. And the little bits he did reveal to others like Regina were enough to get her through her crisis and to make readers want more.
This mystery turned out to be a double-edged sword. Diego’s following was a surprise and totally fantastic, but on the other hand, when we decided to make Uncivil Wars his story, it became a bit of an obstacle.
The Character Background
Until I sat down and started Diego’s back story in earnest, I hadn’t realized Uncivil Wars was more than just a continuation of Loyalties. I was so focused on the “here and now” of the storyline I totally missed the point. Once I did start writing that background I discovered the essence of Uncivil Wars. It’s about our roots and how the past comes back to haunt us when we least expect it. Above all, are we willing to learn from the past and make things right or will we continue to make the same mistakes over and over again?
Diving into a character background is the story within the story. You know where it begins and you know how it’s supposed to ends — or rather where it starts for the audience. Like our own lives, there really is no end to a character’s background. It’s in constant motion with every novel you write and use that character in.
The novel you write is an expansion of the background. It’s a moment in time for that individual that you’ve chosen to examine in detail and highlight for your readers. None of us in real life spring into being fully formed with all our hopes, fears and goals. Our lives are made up of one moment after another and all of them form who and what we are.
The same goes for your character. Your novel is the part in your character’s life that strays from the mundane and he or she is forced to make some significant change in their life.
A well-conceived background is more than just another piece of groundwork. The background story gives you the opportunity to explore where all of your character’s hopes and fears came from. It gives you the chance to see how those quirks and traits evolved. You begin to see why they still hold on to some beliefs and habits and not others.
While you may not use all of the background in the story in your current plot, all of it is important. That information shapes the character’s thoughts and reactions to everything in the current plot. It makes them credible. It makes them live.
Getting To Know Your Character
How well do you think you know your characters? Like me, you may think you know them pretty well, especially if you’ve been writing them for a few years.
Here’s a little exercise for you. This week I challenge you to learn something new about your characters. Even if you’ve already written a background for them, take another visit. Some exercises that may yield surprising results are:
- The Interview. Do a one on one interview with your character. Put yourself in the story and meet up with your character in a bar or café, or write up a few interview questions and answer them as your character would.
- Let The Character Speak. In the book, Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradly, the author begins each section with an account of the events through the eyes of the lead character called “Morgain Speaks”. Writing the character through first person, especially if you don’t usually write in that tense, never fails to give surprising results.
- Write Their Life Story. If you haven’t written a background at all, try writing their life story up to the point of the current novel. Explore the aspects you haven’t had the opportunity to touch on in your novel.
Go ahead and try it. We’d love it if you shared your discoveries here in the comments or with us and the rest of the readers on Facebook.