Friday, May 6, 2022

Writing an Un-Put-Downable Character (Part 4 of 10): History

by A.C. Williams @ACW_author

Can you imagine Sherlock Holmes without his addictions? What about Elizabeth Bennet without the outrageous antics of her family? 

Would you get Frodo in the Lord of the Rings without first knowing about the Shire? Or what about the Pevensie children and life in war-torn England before they arrive in Narnia?

Last month in our series about creating un-put-downable characters, we talked about Contradictions. Today, we’re talking about History.

Where did your character come from? What about nationality, culture, and religion? What job did they work? What skills do they have?

Did they grow up on the street or in a posh boarding school? Are they the child of nobles, or are they the unwanted orphan forced to live in the cupboard under the stairs?

As an author, one of the most powerful resources at your disposal is your character’s History. Sometimes we call it back story, and there are more rules on how you use it than you can shake a stick at. But regardless of how, when, where, and why you use it, you gotta have it.

How Darth Vader Hooked Us

In 1977, when the shadowy figure of Darth Vader appeared on movie screens across the country, nobody knew who he was or where he came from. Obviously, he was a villain. We’d learn later in the film that he was once the student of Obi-Wan Kenobi (my personal favorite) and had turned against everything he’d been taught. We’re told he murdered Anakin Skywalker. We know he’s powerful, unhinged, and that just about everyone is utterly terrified of him because of his superhuman powers.

We know the basics. Vader had been a noble Jedi once, and he’d fallen to the Dark Side of the Force. For this movie, that’s all we need. He’s the bad guy. But he leaves us with questions. 

If he wasn’t always evil, why did he turn? If Darth Vader is so strong, why does he obey the emperor? Why does he wear that freaky looking suit? Does he need the respirator to breathe? If so, what happened to him to cause it? 

We’ve got questions, y’all.

This is why you develop a character’s back story. Your readers need enough information about your character to satisfy the needs of the immediate story, but if you indicate there’s more to discover, they’ll keep coming back. 

When you as the author know all these extraneous details, it allows you to write your character as a fully rounded individual with quirks, eccentricities, and compelling depth that leads readers to ask WHY.

There’s a reason why Darth Vader serves the emperor. There’s a reason why Vader can’t survive outside his suit. There’s a reason why he hates Obi-Wan Kenobi. But none of those reasons add to the story of the original Star Wars movie. If the writers were to pursue those reasons, it would have distracted from the main point. 

Introduce Luke Skywalker, the hero. Rescue the princess. Save the Rebellion. That’s the main story of the first Star Wars movie, and anything that distracted from that main point would have muddied the waters (and with all the names, alien races, and flailing facial prosthetics, it was hard enough to keep track of everything anyway).

But that one movie released 45 years ago this month launched a literal empire of movies, books, and television shows that’s still going strong today (Baby Yoda anyone?). 

Sure, the effects were impressive for the time. No, it had never really been done before. But it wasn’t the effects or the concept that sold audiences worldwide on Star Wars. It was the characters, and it was the fact that as deep as you wanted to dig into their histories, you could. The world was so fully rounded that even the side characters had histories (hello, Boba Fett). 

What We Can Learn From Star Wars

Give your characters back story. Make it deep. Build it into how they speak, what they look like, what they wear, what they eat. Don’t be satisfied with “they just do” as an answer for why a character does something. Connect it to some element of their history. 

Why they do it always matters more than What they do.

Let’s say your protagonist has a facial scar. Maybe for the story you’re writing right now, it doesn’t matter where it came from. But you need to know. What if he got it from a house fire that killed his family? Maybe he’s the only survivor.

For this story, that fact may not matter, but if that’s the case, that character will have certain reactions to fire and the smell of smoke. He’s going to experience trauma. He’ll have other characteristics of someone who has survived something like that.

We don’t need to know who died or when or where. We may not even need to know it happened. But your character knows, and that knowledge shapes how he reacts to other elements in the story. So you need to know too.

Give your characters a history. You may not need to put it in the book you’re writing, but it will have a huge affect on how you write.

For your information, here’s what’s left in our ten-step journey:



Award-winning author, A.C. Williams is a coffee-drinking, sushi-eating, story-telling nerd who loves cats, country living, and all things Japanese. She’d rather be barefoot, and if she isn’t, her socks won’t match. She has authored eight novels, two novellas, three devotional books, and more flash fiction than you can shake a stick at. A senior partner at the award-winning Uncommon Universes Press, she is passionate about stories and the authors who write them. Learn more about her book coaching and follow her adventures online at


  1. Thank you for this series A.C., its been really helpful. :)

  2. Great article. So good and helpful to enable us to guide the reader from point A to point B by allowing them to unravel point A and finally get to point C :-) Thank you Amy.