WRITING KNOWHOW Characters: The early years

How much do you think about your character’s early years? KnowHow editor Eleanor Pender takes things back to the very beginning. 

Think about your childhood, how you behaved when you were little. Were you a dreamer? Running off with friends to play make-believe? Maybe you’ve wondered before that your dreaming as a child led to you being a writer today, turning make-believe into stories. 

Drawing these kinds of connections between childhood behaviours and later actions can offer stability to a story, and give a sense of direction to a character that does not take the reader by surprise. It makes sense. 

In this series, we’ve discussed using books or films as a helpful point of reference. Next time you’re reading a book, or watching a film, keep an eye out for any references to childhood behaviour or events. Is there a significant event in a character’s life when they are young? How does the story refer back to this? How is this used as the character grows up? 

Grounding behaviour in previous experience helps your readers see a pattern in behaviour, how a character is growing up into the person they want to be from the child that they were. For example, in The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen lost her father at a young age and had to step in and support the family after her mother was frozen in her grief. Katniss, at a young age, had no time to mourn and instead took care of Primrose and her mother. Does it come as a surprise that she is a character who focuses more on action, on what can be done physically in the moment, and dislikes discussing feelings and sitting with her emotions? 

Sometimes, these details may be more for you than for the reader. This can depend on when your story starts in your character's timeline, and how much of the character’s life impacts on the plot. But, for you as the creator, making those points of connection can be incredibly revealing. For Katniss, the loss of her father leads her to hold onto and fiercely protect her sister, so much so that she volunteers for the Hunger Games in Primrose’s place. Her reaction and behaviour has, to a certain degree, been set in motion by her own previous behaviour, shaped by subconscious decision and responses to past events. 

Take a closer look at your own main character. To do this, let's write out a timeline. 
  1. Draw a line down the centre of a page.
  2. Divide it up with ages on one side and key life events on the other. 
  3. Keep your timeline going right up to when your story starts. 
  4. Think about what your character has done at different ages in their life, what they have done to manage change, deal with pressure or stress during specific events. 
Thinking back, and using the timeline, lets you stand back and look at patterns. How your characters cope and react in emotional and stressful situations can help you see a connection across these times in their life, in their emotions and behaviours. The way your character acts doesn’t come from nowhere. This is a way to help check your character’s behaviour over time and can give you a clearer idea of why they react and behave the way they do.

Main image by Robert Collins

Do you have any suggestions for KnowHow? If there's something you'd like to know how to do or know more about, tell us. Email KnowHow editor, Eleanor at knowhow@britishscbwi.org

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