Do you know the song, Getting to Know You? It was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein and first sung by Deborah Kerr in the 1956 production of The King and I. Julie Andrews sang it in the 2006 remake. “Getting to know you. Getting to know all about you. Getting to like you. Getting to hope you’ll like me.”
In “real” life, people get to know us and we get to know them gradually. We all have a back story, a history that’s contributed to making us who we are. When we meet someone, we learn the basic information about them quickly but it takes a bit of time to really get to know them. How do they think? What are their dreams? What makes them tick? Why do they say and do what they say and do?
In time, we learn those things about people we get close to and become friends with and we tend to forgive them their shortcomings because we understand and care about them. However, most people we meet never acquire that status in our lives; they are acquaintances and we know very little about them. On some level, we may make a judgment. We may think “I hate running into Suzanne; she never stops talking,” or “Jack gets on my last nerve; he always has to be the center of attention.” If we knew people’s back story, we might not be so quick to jump to conclusions.
For example, what if you knew that Suzanne had never married; she’d devoted her life to taking care of her severely mentally ill sister and the only time she got a break (or a chance to talk with someone who was capable of understanding her) was when she ran out to the store or the post office? And, what about Jack? What if you found out that, when he was growing up, as the middle child of ten, his parents were too busy to give him any attention. Do you feel at least a smidgen of compassion for the two of them now? Do you have a better understanding of why they are the way they are?
That’s why I chose to give each of the important characters in my novels a back story. I want readers to understand why each character does what he/she does and what part their pasts play in determining who they are. Of course, it’s crucial to keep readers involved in the present story; the goal, after all, is to hold their interest and compel them to keep reading. Every writer does that differently; I prefer to blend it into the story. As I write, I get to know my characters well and I want my readers to get to know them too.