When characters spring to life on the page–fully fleshed, breathing, with their quirks–it’s because the writer who created them understood them ahead of time, created their backstory.
For Jim Ambrose, philandering husband and one of the antagonists in With Malice towards One, I knew this much based on a conversation I had early on with Danny Ambrose, the female protagonist. His backstory says a lot about Danny, as well.
“Has Jim any family?”
“No. His folks died young in a freaky two year period. His dad had a premature heart attack in his early thirties and his mom died of complications from the flu. Jim was raised by his mother’s sister Rose, a tallish, raw-boned spinster with a will of iron.
“They were never close. The first time he ever mentioned her was when we got engaged and he supposed we’d have to invite her to the wedding, he said. Even now, I can recall the moment that day when Rose, ever quiet and prim, took me aside and said, ‘Well, my dear, he’s your responsibility now.’ Her expression crossed somewhere between haggard and dubious, as if she were exhausted from dealing with him and doubted that I was up to the challenge.
“In the first years of our marriage we went to her home in Hartford for the holidays, but there was always an air of indignation or antagonism or disapproval—from him or her…I never could quite tell who it originated with. Looking back, it might have been that they were both too strong. You know, both vying for control? Whatever the reason, it ruined the holiday and by our third Christmas Jim decided Connecticut was too far to travel from Long Island. We sent flowers instead.
“I called her every month or so, but he’d never speak to her. She died alone in the house in Hartford about seven or eight years ago, and I still wonder if I’d abrogated my responsibility—to Aunt Rose.”
Malcolm Robertson, the history professor in With Malice towards One, told me this about himself:
“I was born at the end of the second World War. My father had been home on leave, gotten Mother pregnant, then gotten killed in the last air strikes on Germany.” He offered a wry smile. “Mother, Aunt Lucy and Aunt Margaret raised me, and I’ve often wondered if it was that household of women that accounts for the fact that I’m more comfortable around the fairer sex than around men.
“And perhaps that’s why I married Em. She was pretty, and level-headed, knew how to bake like Lucy and keep her accounts like Mother. We laughed together, and I truly thought I loved her, but she wanted sex a lot more than companionship. I could ehm… perform the act, just never got a lot out of it. It was a few years before I could admit that the reason she didn’t appeal to me for sex was that I was gay. It took me another year to get over that shock, but, once I did, Emily and I parted company. She was a great girl about it, wanting me to be happy as much as she wanted a richer relationship for herself.
“I began to explore my sexuality.carefully. I had a few short-lived relationships with lovers–but only a few. After all, it’s a stupid cat that dirties in his own garden, you know. I wasn’t trying to hide my situation from school officials. I’d been up front with colleagues, especially after a few of them tried to fix me up with single women they knew. No, I simply felt it was beneath me to live a life of flagrant sex. And yes, still, because I felt more comfortable around women than men, I found the introductory parts of new relationships very difficult indeed. Still do.”
A small bit of backstory for Geoffrey Gandulf, reeve of Norburnshire for William de la Coeur Grifon in The Luck of Two Magpies.
Inseparable playmates they had been as children, Geoff thought, but manhood and rank had made them as different as servant and master. Even so, this William was the lad he had loved to whoop and run with; the young lord who had got drunk with him the morn Taddy was born; the man who arrived home when the old Earl his father died, and wept for his loss on Geoff’s shoulder. Separate and unequal they were, but linked irrevocably—master and servant and more.
And the most interesting development to come out of knowing your character’s backstory? That despite that knowledge, they can still surprise you in the scenes they appear in.