by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
As writers, keeping our tools sharp is a necessary part of the craft. Sometimes, a scenario pops into our head and we rush to create characters to plug in to the story template we’ve created. However, great stories often come out of well-developed characters. One effective way to create a new story can be to construct the narrative around a fascinating character you’ve already shaped, as opposed to taking the opposite approach.
Characters with multiple layers and well-developed back stories often share a few common traits. One is a wound or a ghost. A wound is something that was done to the character before the story begins. It’s a scar they cannot stop looking at. While taking part in the external journey they are involved in, they are secretly hoping to heal their wound – even though they might not consciously know that. In War Dogs, both main characters have their wound referenced by supporting cast, though they never directly speak to their wounds, themselves.
A ghost is a figure from the protagonist’s life that still follows him or her around, metaphorically. The shadow of the ghost seems to loom large over everything they do. While this sounds like an ominous situation, it can be found in the most jovial of comedies. On The Office, Andy Bernard is constantly trying to escape the ghost of his father, who is still living, but is an omnipresent force in everything Andy says and does.
Here are six character prompts you can practice developing backstories around, complete with either the character’s wound or ghost. If you’re in a hurry, write 1-2 pages of backstory for one of these characters. If you have more time, try writing 4-5 pages.
Prompt: He is the son of one of the wealthiest tech billionaires in the United States.
Ghost: His mother. Even though he seems destined to follow in the ruthless footsteps of his father, friends and family keep telling him of the kindness and generosity of his deceased mother.
Prompt: She has just been elected sheriff of the town she grew up in.
Wound: Her brother was convicted of a crime when she was a child. He was killed in jail. It was later proven that he was innocent of the crime he was convicted of.
Prompt: She discovers a fellow professor at the university she teaches at is involved with an underground racist movement.
Wound/Ghost: She was the only person of color at every school she attended in England. One particular bully made her life hell throughout her formative years.
Prompt: He has a secret. He’s the only gay resident of Sunnyside Nursing Home, but no one knows this.
Wound: The only time in his life he expressed his true feelings for someone, he was rejected and shamed.
Prompt: She’s just married the man of her dreams. Only one challenge in her mind – she’s black and he’s white. That and no one in her family knows.
Ghost: On his death bed, her grandfather, who was injured in the civil rights movement, asked her to never marry outside her race.
Prompt: He’s in love with the single mom next door. They seem perfect for each other, except… it’s illegal, obviously.
Wound/Ghost: His mother died giving birth to him. Could this be psychologically intertwined in his feelings for his neighbor?
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.