Friday, February 23, 2018

Discovering People Groups and Backstory

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest

Sometimes the things you write aren't supposed to end up in your finished work. Sometimes the things you write are just for you.

I finished writing a fantasy book not long ago that features four distinct people groups. During my early writing sessions, these people groups crept up organically--my hero meeting each group as she journeyed from one side of her island to the other. As each people group climbed onto the page, as they began to take on life and color, I had to step away from my main work and discover what makes each of them unique. I needed to understand their collective wants and their histories. I needed to know whose side they'd be on in any number of battles and I needed to find out where I'd find nuances within the group. On the whole, I needed to discover how these people fit into the story I was telling.

I tackled this task in much the same way I tackle everything else. After a period of stewing on my first thoughts about the people group in question, I sat down in the chair and I prepared to write.

This kind of writing is a little different for me because I have no intention of including it in my novel. Because of that, I open an entirely new document for these writing sessions. Once I discover who these people are and what makes them tick, I have to decide what specifically the reader needs to know and when he needs to know it. Not everything I write during these sessions will be shared in the novel, and I'll carefully unveil the necessary elements as the story requires them.

Another thing I do differently when I'm discovery writing great swathes of history: I don't always set a timer and sprint my way through. I'm loathe to abandon the practice entirely--it works for me--but I do allow myself to stop and research various things as I move forward.  

Here are five things I'm looking to understand as I set out on this portion of storytelling:


Where did this people group come from? Are they native to this land or did they arrive here later? If so, how much later? Were they a colonizing force? Maybe they were refugees, escaping persecution elsewhere? Do they know their history? Does their past matter to them at all? Does their background put them at odds with any of the other people groups in my story? Does their history give them natural allies? Does their origin affect the story problem? Does it affect my hero or anyone else in my cast of characters?


What does this people group believe about life and death? What do they believe about their own creation? Are they religious? What do they value above all else? Does everyone in the people group believe the same thing? What do their differences stem from?  Do they have a place of worship? How does my hero and the cast surrounding her feel about the beliefs of this group? Does it make them sympathetic to the group or critical?


How does this people group live? Do they share households with family members? Are they solitary dwellers? Does the entirety of the people group live in one general location or are they spread across your world? Why have they chosen to live this way? How does this people group sustain themselves? Are they skilled in a variety of trades? How has their origin and belief system factored into where and how they live and survive?


Does your people group have a clear leader? Is there a government in place? If so, what kind? Is it a kingdom or a form of democracy with representatives and votes? Is there a ruling class? Are the rulers benevolent or uncaring? Under this leadership, are the people united? Are they looking for an opportunity to fight themselves free? Are they in full rebellion? What are the stated priorities of the leadership? What are the perceived priorities of the leadership? What are the actual priorities of the leadership?


If I'm writing with a theme in mind, I want my discovery writing sessions to unearth just how this people group can serve my theme. When I was writing my second book, Broken Wings, a theme had developed independent of my intentions: worship as warfare. I loved this concept and wanted to serve it by inserting characters that helped me along. I did this by creating a rank of angels called the Sabres. Describing them, I said this,

. . . it's his wings that so separate them from any other angel I've seen. Their beauty is staggering, their design inexplicable. Where I expect to see rows and rows of snowy white feathers, one blade lies on top of another--thousands of them--sharp and glistening silver . . . they rub one against the other, trembling, sending music far and wide.

The wings of the Sabres are dangerous and useful in battle, but it's their song that does the real damage in warfare. Whenever I create a people group, I remember how effective my Sabres were in serving my theme and I ask myself, "How can this people group do the same for this story?"

I've given you just five things to look for as you settle in and discover the kind of backstory that will inform you as an author and make your tale all the richer. Though, in truth, much of it may never make it onto the page.

It's easy to get bogged down in this portion of noveling, easy to lose time writing pages and pages of unnecessary words. Discovery writers must be careful not to tumble down the rabbit hole of excessive world development. It's a delicate balance and one you get better at as you grow. Give your pen the freedom to roll across the page but keep in mind that the most important thing you're looking to discover is how each people group touches your hero, her journey, and the problem she's trying to solve.

When you're creating people groups, what is it you're looking to discover? What elements of their backstory do you need to understand to make these characters come alive on the page?


  1. I have had to do something similar so that I don't just dump everything about my world into the story. I have such a hard time not sharing everything I know about it though, so I have a blog where I can share the details that don't make it into the story with anyone who would be interested in knowing more. That makes it so much less tempting to dump it into the story.

    1. That's a fantastic way to do it! It is SO TEMPTING to dump an entire history. Especially for those of us who are discovery writers. We're discovering things as we go and if we don't move that stuff to another document, we run the risk of bogging down the manuscript. I love that you share extra details on your blog.

  2. This is so helpful! I need to work on asking myself more questions like this for my story and my characters. Thanks for the reminder!

    Your books sound really cool, I need to FINALLY read them sometime. Broken Wings cover is epic. XD

    -Gray Marie |