By Meghan Miller
If you were asked to describe yourself, you'd probably come back with basic facts: your name, your age, where you live, your occupation. You'd probably throw out some other information, too. Maybe you love cats, have an undergrad degree from SUNY, hate canned mushrooms, and secretly fantasize about moving to a Walden-esque setting and living off the land. Or maybe you have a pet turtle, are afraid of spiders, taught yourself how to program when you were seventeen, started a small software company, drink too much Diet Coke, and would like to meet Mr. Right, but only if he's not going to get uptight about working long hours.
Neither of those descriptions tells us a lot about you, but it gives us some idea of where to start, at least, and maybe we could bond over our shared hate of canned mushrooms or our love of Diet Coke.
That's how it goes when people are asked about themselves. Ask someone about a character in a book that they're writing, though, and the story seems to change. "My heroine?" they say. "Well, she's twenty-seven. Her parents were killed in a car crash when she was fourteen, and since then, she's been mostly on her own. Her boyfriend raped her when she was seventeen, and now she doesn't trust men very much. A few months before the story starts, she was contacted by a lawyer who told her that her long-estranged grandmother had recently passed away and, as the only living relative, she was entitled to her grandmother's estate, which included a large but financially struggling company, and now she has to figure out how to keep it afloat."
Obviously, there's nothing inherently wrong with having that as a backstory. But look at the difference between the two descriptions. One if about who the person is--their likes and dislikes, what they want, what they've done. The other is about what has been done to them. The person being described is passive and has very little input into the description, which is all about other people's actions. And let's face it: if you have a character whose personality is defined by other people, you don't have a very interesting character. It's not that knowing someone is allergic to pineapple makes them more interesting, but it gives you a little more insight to the character. You’re not writing a story about what happened to the character ten years ago, you’re writing about what’s happening now. To make the character come alive, you need more than just their backstory and whatever the current plot is. You need hints of who that person is, their likes and dislikes, their fears and fantasies.
Maybe some of these details will never make it into your story, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't know it. Knowing your character's favorite color or least favorite pizza topping might not make the next plot twist completely apparent to you, but everything you know about a character will inform their actions and, ultimately, make for a more believable, better-written character.