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Writing Characters: How To Use a “Hinterland” To Develop Backstory (With Free Resources)

hinterlandYou may have heard of the word “hinterland” to suggest something mysterious or hidden. In German, it literally means “land behind.” However, many writing schools teach potential novelists to use a “hinterland” to develop characters off the page before writing the words that will end up in your book.

Using a hinterland will give readers the sense they have just stepped into your novel at a point in time before the events unfold. It enriches your characters in terms of speech, foibles, and reactions because you the writer are in possession of these facts.

However, not everything you write down in this document will end up in the book itself. It should serve as the lens through which you write your characters, not notes that end up written into your plot. A good hinterland starts and finishes as your own research into your imagination, as if you are taking notes on real-life characters and their lives.

How To Create a Hinterland for your Book

Start by drawing up a table of characters. I have created this basic table in Excel if you want to download it as a template.
You will soon have a table that you will have immense fun filling out for each character. Remember you should do this for animals and aliens too! You can also do a sheet for your settings, and fill in temperatures, weather, mood, and styles of housing etc.

Remember that some of this stuff will never be revealed within the book, but just like you or me, backstories affect characters and their behavior. We may have a dark secret, but we never tell anyone. This might make us tense or irritable. Others may just think it’s our personality.

By using a Hinterland, you can create an entire world at your fingertips that will enable you to dip in and out of your characters’ worlds without losing sight of who they are, and give them motivations and scenes that are rich and emotional. You will also find dialogue and reactions become unique to that character instead of merging with others.

Take a look at the mad fan-drawn Game of Thrones table of characters from thenodysseyonline that shows all the relationships in Season 2. Click to enlarge!


Useful Author Resources for Creating a Hinterland

(These links are not affiliate links, so click away freely!)

Persona (Free trial available here)

“Packed inside Persona are archetypal themes—good guys and bad guys. These archetypes are described in detail: personality traits, qualities, flaws, background, occupations, and how they interact with other personalities. Whether your character is a brainiac talking fish or an outcast orphanage owner, Persona helps you explore how each one’s unique psychology and background influence their dealings and dialogue. We’ve even made it possible for you to see what happens if your character becomes corrupt and turns from hero and heroine into villain or villainess.”



Story Plot Generator (Download here at Google Apps For Android)

While this may seem corny, this app from ARC actually has over 1 million combinations of backstory with four key aspects of your story: a location or situation, a detail, a complication and an objective. Could be just the thing to get the creative juices flowing.

storyplot generator







MindNode (Apple)

If you want to create a really complicated cozy mystery or fantasy novel, don’t get in a twist with character hierarchy. MindNode offers visual representations of relationships between things, ideas, threads of plot and more importantly, characters. You can even have your characters represented in little avatars:






Scrivener (Free Trial Download here)

While I’m personally not a huge fan of Scrivener (generally documents I edit that came from Scrivener are jumbled in terms of proofreading in a way I cannot even explain), when you are in the creative trenches the research and outline tools in this well-known product will help you create a solid and well-researched hinterland without having to fiddle around with new technology. Old-school look and feel and easy to master, this is great for getting the backstory just right.








The Emotional Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi

ET-FramedAngela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi are a powerhouse of character writing ideas and run writershelpingwriters, a website packed full of worksheets and freebies to help you with your hinterland creation. Their books are amazingly detailed and easy to follow to help you create a perfect backstory. You can also check out Becca’s site One Stop For Writers here.