I was at the grocery store a few days ago and the checkout clerk turned out to be a Handsome Young Man with a shock of red-brown hair, foxy features, and a short beard. His arms sported several tattoos, including Hobbes hugging Calvin.
“Calvin and Hobbes!” I said, gesturing at his arm. “Nice.”
He gave a shy smile. “Yeah. My favorite cartoon in the whole world.”
I also noticed a whole bunch of hash marks on his other arm, perhaps fifty or sixty. “What are the counting marks for?” I asked.
“The number of brain surgeries I’ve had,” he said.
This set off a short conversation. It turned out he had been operated on for hydro-encephalitis a great many times and got a new harsh mark each time he did it.
“This is actually nothing,” he said, holding up his arm. “I know people who have been in two and three hundred times.”
I left with my groceries and he went on to the next customer.
The checkout clerk is a minor person in my life, someone I may never see again. If he were a character in a book, he’d appear in a single scene and vanish. But from his perspective, of course, he’s the main character of his own story–the protagonist who struggles with a recurring physical illness while working at a grocery store and who copes by adding to his tattoos–while I’m the bearded guy with a shaved head who strolled through his checkout line one day and asked about those very tattoos, then walked out of his life, never to be seen again.
It should be like this for every character in your fiction, from the protagonist all the way down to one-timers. Every character thinks he or she is the main character.
Every single person we encounter has a back story, whether we know what it is or not. And that backstory has a big impact on how people act and react. That woman you’re shouting at because she’s driving so slow is on way home from getting a positive test for breast cancer, and she’s too distracted to drive the speed limit. That guy who’s selling lettuce at the produce stand just learned his daughter got into Dartmouth, and he’s overjoyed, but he has to stay at work. That couple who brought a screaming baby on your flight is desperately trying to get to Dallas so they can take care of Aunt Betty, who had a heart attack.
Fictional characters should also be the same way. All of them should have a back story, and that back story helps determine their actions. If you have a cranky taxi driver, you should know why she’s cranky. If your mail carrier is whistling while he delivers a package, you should know why he’s whistling. If your thug obeys the antagonist without question, you should know why he does so.
The actual back story may not make it into the book, but you will know it, and that will translate into better prose–your characters will react more realistically.
–Steven Harper Piziks