Why do so many protagonists start on page one? Don’t characters need to have some background BEFORE the story starts?
Maybe you agree. You could already have a roll call of traits that make up your protagonist, as well as lists for other characters. Your inventory might include things like their job, their marital status, wealth or lack of, hometown, hair color, buff or overweight, left-handed, smokes cigars, loves dogs but hates cats, favorite color, watches Humphrey Bogart movies, has a gold tooth in the front, and on and on.
So, armed with these facts, you know everything there is to know about your protagonist, including how s/he will react in any situation. No?
I’m not knocking a list of attributes. But it’s like a resume, a thumbnail sketch, and won’t give you a character that springs off the page. It gives the protagonist’s “what,” but it doesn’t give the “why.” For that, you need to know what happened in their past that made them the character they are on page one. In other words, you need their backstory.
How many people do you know were birthed as adults? Me neither. Outside of mythology, everybody I ever heard of began as a baby, went through childhood and many formative years before they became the person they are today. I’m not suggesting you write a character’s whole life from infancy on, but as Lisa Cron teaches us in her excellent book Story Genius, protagonists (and perhaps other characters) begin a novel with a burning desire or goal, and a “misbelief”—a.k.a., fear—that stands in the way of their achieving that desire. Where would that misbelief/fear originate? In childhood.
Cron suggests a single incident must have happened to your protagonist as a child that gave rise to that misbelief. A second incident that reinforced the fear in your character likely came later—say during puberty. Maybe there was even a third incident in the character’s teenage years that cemented that misbelief in his/her mind. On the threshold of page one that fear is as much a part of your character as a backbone, and gives him/her an ingrained misbelief they will have to struggle with and overcome.
That’s easy enough. You come up with a few incidents and—presto—you’ve got a better protagonist. Your reader can certainly empathize with someone trying to overcome their inner fear.
Not so fast! Nobody ever said writing was easy. To make your story the best it can be, you have to put in the elbow grease.
Now that you have an idea for that inciting incident that gave rise to your protagonist’s misbelief—write out the scene. By doing so, you’ll put that general conception of the incident on the page, in words, with specific details. To quote Lisa Cron (again), specifics beget specifics. The specific details that come from writing the scene will produce more specific details that give your character a depth right down to microscopic level.
Now, write out that second scene. And the third.
Backstory this detailed will give you an understanding of your character so intricate that s/he will spring off the page. That understanding will assert itself in your protagonist—and your story—at a depth hard hitting as a gut punch and as nuanced as the aroma of fine wine.
Your protagonist is now ready for Page One. The rest of your characters. . .?