Your lead characters have histories with many people and places. A normal person has parents, grandparents, friends, and schoolmates. Your lead characters have lived in many places. This is to say, your lead characters have a past. Likewise, your lead characters wants to go places, do things, and meet other people. Your lead characters’ actions point to this future that they imaging.
In short, don’t overlook the past and the future. These help define your character as much as today.
PastThe past contains stories. These stories illustrate your character better than essays. A character could talk about working in the coal mines, but is that different from a character remembering the smell of coal dust and sweaty men riding the elevator down. Even a pointless flashback can deliver information better information than an essay.
I met Pete Peterson when I worked for Big Coal, down in Tennessee. I ran front end loaders ten hours a day while Pete directed the explosives team. I got hired on right after some lumber company wrapped up the clearcutting. On weekends, when the bosses went golfing, we would chuck dynamite into the slurry pond just to watch the water plumes. One of those ponds burst one day. We blamed the contractor and that didn’t bother us. The contractor had cheated anyway. Later on, we heard about the fish die-off downstream. I always felt bad about those fish. They were more human than the people that I worked for.In this description, we learn that the lead character can handle earthmoving equipment, used to live in Tennessee, and has some sort of conscience. This character has an emotional life, even if the character doesn’t normally show it. We also learn a little about Pete, who shows up later in the story.
The more real that we make a character’s past, the more real that the character becomes.
Because a character’s present situation can be so different from their past, you can set up contrasts within those differences. A man remembering his first kiss as he hides in a foxhole adds a layer of mercy just before he begins shooting his machine gun. A man fighting for a cause may remember a time when injustice touched him, informing the reader why he fights so strongly.
The past can be anything, but is only useful in so far as it is different than today. The purpose of the past is not only to inform about present circumstances, but to show our lead character in a different light or from a different angle. This is especially true in stories where lead characters are constricted in their thoughts and actions. The past allows us to break our current restrictions without actually breaking them.
You can imagine, for example, the story of a soulless killing cyborg that destroys everything without mercy interspersed with the story of a priest who risks his life saving innocents from the cyborg domination, only in the end to become that very same cyborg. In that story, the lead character cannot speak for himself, or even remember, but the past allows us to break that limitation and tell the character’s story.
FutureThe future is unique because it contains something that your character wants, anticipates, or fears. You character reacts to this future. If the character wants to be President of the United States, he may choose to avoid opportunities in an effort to keep his reputation clean. If you character will soon run a marathon, he may avoid activities which risk injury, or spend lots of time training. If your character wants something enough, the risks that he takes may become worthwhile.
Changing a character’s future changes the character. If the character changes his aims and goals for the future, then naturally, where the character is headed will change as well.
For example, the priest from above acts because he sees a future in all the people that he rescues. His imagination tells him that there is a future worth saving, and he lives into that idea of a future world. That imagination lets him believe that his actions of saving people is worthwhile, and so he goes about his dangerous vocation.
Futures also acts as MacGuffins. There are many stories about people racing towards some goal because of the future reward that the goal offers. It doesn’t matter what the goal is, as long as the characters want it.