Guest Post: Running a Background Check on Characters in Your Fiction

This week’s guest post is from Jane Smith at backgroundcheck.org. She has an interesting take on how to apply her day job (writing about background checks for businesses) to her fiction writing.

Origin Story: Running a Background Check on Characters in your Fiction

Typically when I write for my client site, I talk about criminal background checks from a business perspective. Believe it or not, I think that background checks figure very prominently into the realm of fiction, and this is coming from an amateur novelist.

You see, background checks are all about researching a person’s past. Previous crimes, unflattering records, and personal history all figure prominently into most professional background checks. In a sense, a background check is an easy (but not foolproof) way to get a snapshot of someone’s life. True, the background check might paint a somewhat one dimensional picture, but it’s an invaluable starting point for potential employers, health officials, and law enforcement to get an idea of someone’s personal past.

In order to create a fully realized and believable character, I believe that an author has to perform their own kind of background check on that character to glean details about their previous life. it’s not enough to write a story about a character as they are in the present plot—an author has to think about where it’s characters have come from, what they’ve been through, how they’ve lived their lives up to the opening sentence.


Most authors would call this form of fictional background checking an “origin story,” where you explore the past of a character. You can be as thorough as you want with this process: imagine the family life of your character, what their parents were like, the neighborhood they grew up in, their first love, and so on. The more deeply you plunge into the past of your characters, the more you’ll understand what drives them as you write them into a story. You’ll find that once you get to know your characters you won’t have to spend as much time figuring out what they would do in certain scenarios. Just as you can anticipate how your friends or relatives would act in a certain situation, so too can you anticipate how your characters would act within the context of your plot.

When I first started writing fiction, I tried to crystallize the vision of my characters as is, without any thought to why they were in my stories. While it was thrilling to write stories about these characters, it didn’t take long for me to realize how one-dimensional they were. My early short stories were all plot and little to no character development: a character witnessed a bank robbery or engaged in a tense conversation with a lover, but there wasn’t really anything going on with them beyond the setting I had created. My writing significantly improved once I realized that there was more to characters than their immediate actions within the plot of a story.

So do you see now have running a “background check” on your characters could help you write a better story? How do you give depth to your characters?

Jane Smith is a freelance writer for backgroundcheck.org, though she enjoys writing on a host of topics including politics, education, fiction, and travel. When she’s not writing, Jane enjoys spending time with her dog Buster and crafting short stories. Please send some comments her way!


One comment

  1. Jane, interesting idea. I see/hear my characters moving and talking in my head, and generally I’ve got a lot of their past running as well — sometimes I’ll write out the scenes, sometimes not, but I create a fairly elaborate history — or I do as I write the first draft. At that point, I’ll come across questions, like: what happened to X’s former partners?
    that result in my filling in background I wasn’t aware was missing.

    For me, it’s kind of like I’m casting a character in a play or movie. I’m not big on writing all this stuff down, though.

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