When I am constructing a personality for a character in my stories, I always try to give each character a backstory that will make them act in ways that will move my plot along. Even if this backstory makes no appearance in the text, it will impact on how that character acts and what that character wants. It is what the character wants that causes the conflicts in a narrative, be it the character wants to rule the world or simply desires to save it. Character should affects plot and setting as much as setting and plot affect the character.
In my Steampunk Work-in-Progress, my protagonist has quite the backstory. Alice is a polymath, but her specialty is Botany. At seventeen years of age, she has a professorship from a tiny European country, because she attended classes dressed as a man, claimed to be ten years older, and spelt her name as Ellis. She got away with this because she is tall for a woman, and she pretended to be suffering from bad colds most of the time to disguise her voice. She values rationality over emotions.
General random details: She is a genius inventor. She was born in 1854 (and shared her birthday with me; all my protagonists share my birthday to make it easy for me to remember). She had a younger brother, Phineas, but he died in infancy and she can’t really remember him. She is a redhead, and gets frustrated with people who expect her to have a fiery temper. (Actually, I suspect most redheads have a temper because they are sick of people telling them they have a temper – and no soul.)
Her parents went missing when she was eleven, as they were both botanical scientists and went to explore Australia looking for a rare plant they thought might hold a cure for consumption (Tuberculosis). They thought they would be gone just six months to a year, and left Alice in the care of Comtesse Amélie Veronique du Palais, a French cousin to her mother (and a scientist and an innovator in aeronautics). Amélie has done her best to bring up Alice in the manner her parents wanted, by getting the girl tutors in mathematics and all the sciences. Alice often wonders if she is getting the education planned for her deceased baby brother.
It is popular opinion that Alice’s parents are dead, and yet Alice secretly hopes they are alive, though she can’t understand why they haven’t returned to her. Because her parents were quite wealthy, and minor nobility, she has had several offers of marriage, even though she considered something of a scandal and an eccentric. And remember, her husband takes ownership of everything including Alice, and can even refuse Alice permission to do any further research.
Apart from the heartache of her missing parents, Alice finds the outright rejection of the British academic and scientific societies just so unfair and something of a burden. She can’t get any of her papers published. She hasn’t been asked to join any of the societies (though her friendship with Mary Somerville and Charles Babbage may see that oversight corrected). Most academics and scientists don’t appreciate a young woman showing them up; particularly since society frowns on the education of women in the rational sciences and natural philosophy in case their brains melt. She can matriculate at an English university – though she is welcome to study and take exams – and so she can never lecture at a British university. As well, she can’t even go to Kew Gardens without special permission (and the gardens were run by a series of very misogynistic gentlemen). Those fusty old men are also jealous of the fact that she is making another fortune with her discoveries and inventions.
She is devastated when Charles Darwin writes of women being inferior to men. She feels betrayed by her hero.
Alice finds it hard to make friends with women her own age, mainly because ‘nice’ families don’t want her giving their daughters any ideas. She doesn’t look down on girls who haven’t been given the same educational opportunities that she has had. The few times she has been able to chat with girls around her own age, she has found them rather delightful company. She is a lot happier now that she has Sophie Watson as her assistant, for the help AND the company.
Sophie adores Alice for her enthusiasm for science – she was recruited from one of poor scholar schools Alice’s parents started and Alice continues to fund. She isn’t a polymath, but she very intelligent and creative and has something of a crush on Alice. I plan on Sophie finding love eventually with another very bright woman, as Alice is heterosexual (though Alice does like to cross-dress and wear masculine clothing). And I prefer seeing their love mature into a strong platonic love between equals, rather than something sexual.
Speaking of sex, Alice is just starting to get interested in boys as something other than friends. Her best friend in the whole world is Felix Tame (Oscar Wilde), who is a year younger than her but just as much a genius – if in the Arts rather than the Sciences. The two were drawn together by their need for company, and as my mother says ‘water finds its own level’. Two genius level intellects longing to connect with people who can understand the difficulties of being ‘different’; there is no sexual attraction between them.
Mark and James enter Alice’s circle of friends through their mutual interest in science; and she is attracted to both men for different reasons. Mark is the ‘Edison as a boy’ and ‘boy next door’, and is a mechanical and electrical wizard; he invents a working robot using hydraulics and clockwork run by steam. However, Mark is poor and a colonial from Australia – two counts against him marrying Alice who is rich and of higher status. James is rich and sophisticated and of the same class as Alice (and therefore less likely to be interested in marrying her for status or money). His area of science is mathematics and statistics. However, as we will discover, James is more interested in her value as ‘breeding stock’ for providing him with intelligent children rather than in Alice for her own sake.
What is the defining event of Alice’s young life? The loss of her parents. She feels that the source of all her personal troubles flow from there.
So – what does Alice WANT? What causes the conflict?
1/ Alice wants her parents to be found alive.
2/ Alice wants the respect of the scientific and academic establishments.
3/ Alice secretly would like a beau and to feel like a normal girl.
Now, this backstory and personal information is even more detailed in my files. I didn’t want to bore you with too much information. I won’t be coldly stating the facts like this in my narrative. But knowing all this helps me keeps her character consistent. I know how exactly how she will react in a situation. This makes writing about her much easier than if I was just blindly writing and making it up as I go along. It increases the believability of Alice as a real person, and the verisimilitude of the narrative in general.
Now, you might notice very little mention of Alice’s appearance in this backstory. This is because Alice isn’t motivated by her looks, but by her intellect. This is probably because she is a pleasant looking, and can be beautiful on occasions, and so she can ignore her looks. If she was super beautiful, or very plain, or disfigured, this would have an impact on her confidence and behaviour. She would prefer not to have red hair, but doesn’t really fret about it. I chose red hair because she is of Scottish descent, and it amuses me to make her a ginger because Doctor Who wants to be a ginger. Joking aside, I prefer to keep details of her appearance vague so that the reader can supply their own image from their imaginations, though I see her as rather like the two girls accompanying this article.
So there you have it. I now have a character who will react in a very specific way in my narrative, in ways that will push my plot along! And she fits perfectly into the setting, because the setting was designed with characterization and plot in mind. I even know what she would do if she saw a spider – can you guess what Alice would do if confronted by a bird-eating spider?