For a novel (or any other narrative) to work, it must have characters who behave in believable ways. For that reason, many authors choose to base their characters on themselves or people they know: it helps them understand how the people in their might react in any given situation.
But what if your story takes place in a world that’s unlike anything within your personal experience? If your novel is set in a prison colony in space, the character based on your best friend, Mike, would probably react and behave differently from his real-world counterpart.
In this post, I’ll offer up an exercise that will help you ground your character in the world of your story.
Draw up some timelines
It always helps to know what’s come before your story, so that you have some context to start from. So why not draw up a timeline of the world your book is set in, leading up to the events of chapter one.
“First world” fiction
If your story takes place in this, our real world, then this is straightforward. Create a timeline that features all the major world events that may have some major or minor effect on your characters: the Moon landings, 9/11, the 2004 tsunami, Obama’s election, the London Olympics. Fill in as many details as may be relevant to where your story is set — and perhaps even throw in some inconsequential details for texture (“Feb 22, 2010: pop group LMFAO play the Hampton Coliseum in Virginia”).
“Second world” fiction
Second world fiction is a term of art used to describe stories that don’t take place in our universe. Westeros from A Song of Ice and Fire, the
“Alternate History” Timelines
Now this is where timelines get fun. In alternate history fiction, the world is exactly the same as the one we’re living in currently, but with one key difference. And this difference usually results in a very different world. For example, Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is set in a 60s America where the Axis Powers won the Second World War. Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series is set during the Napoleonic Wars, except there are dragons.
If you’re writing an alternate history novel, create a timeline that’s part fact, part fiction:
- Figure out the exact moment where the timeline of this world splits from our own.
- Roughly sketch out the major historical moments leading up to that split
- Fill in, with as much detail as you care for, what has happened socially, and geopolitically in the intervening years.
If you’re writing something that’s set in the future of our own world (like Star Trek, for example) then you can apply the same process.
At this point, you might be wondering why this post claims to be about developing characters, when all we’ve talked about is historical worldbuilding. Well, worry no more.
Map your characters’ timelines on top
Over the top of that timeline, lay out the basic timeline of your character: the year they attended first grade, the year they attended college, when they first fell in love with their wife, and where they lived throughout.
As humans, our memories are often tied up in geography and history. To create a backstory for a character that feels authentic, it helps to know when and where they were at key moments in their life. That way, you can create what feels like a real memory. Which sounds more human and interesting?:
“My mother left when I was 12 years old.”
“When I was 12, my mother disappeared from a beach on Cape Cod two days before the Fourth of July”
The details you’re adding here aren’t necessarily things that you’re reader needs to know. Maybe you’ll reveal them in the second book, maybe never. You can always choose to change the backstory at a later a date. As an author, it’s often better to make a decision — any decision — than to leave your character as a cipher.