It stands to reason that if you want to present a fully-developed character you need to know something about her. Whether you’re individualizing from a type or you have a specific trait or aspect you want to build on, you have to add detail.
What’s interesting about this process is that it’s less about technique than about authorial preference. Hills acknowledges as much by beginning the section as follows:
Who knows how well a fiction writer should know his characters? How much need he know about them?
There’s no right answer. As Hills points out, you only need to know enough to get the job done. If it helps you to work up a comprehensive backstory, then go for it. If you don’t need it, you don’t need it.
Beginning writers wrestle with these questions because they don’t know their own process. There’s no harm in experimenting, unless you write so much about your character that you kill the story you wanted to tell.
It’s tempting to think that writers who tend to start with a character in mind tend to explore character histories more, but I’m not sure. Whether a writer starts with plot or character, that says nothing about that author’s need for pre-planning as part of their own storytelling process. Some writers need to do a lot; some prefer to jump right in and discover what they need along the way.
Some writers develop a drawn out character-discovery process as a means of putting off or becoming comfortable with the harrowing act of authorial commitment — as if rewriting is not also a part of the writing process. If you’re a perfectionist or afraid of failure, beating a backstory to death is one of the best ways to put off that first sentence. Nobody — including you — can ever say you don’t need to know everything you’re discovering about your characters.
Hills spends the bulk of this section asking questions that a writer might ask in order to fully know a character. Here’s an small sample:
Where was he born? Father’s occupation? Mother’s disposition? As a child, did he have no friends, lots of friends, or just one good friend? How was he educated? You know the total effect of his rural or urban upbringing, don’t you? Of his lonely or happy childhood? Okay — then how does he feel about money now, and why?
Hills goes on like that for pages, and I get a sense that much of it is tongue in cheek. Or worse, taken from firsthand experience working with neurotic writers.
Next up: Motivation.
— Mark Barrett