Constructing a Character’s Backstory

You can’t write a compelling character without knowing what he wants, I mean really wants, the desires so deep he won’t even speak them to his therapist. (Assuming he has a therapist.) He may, in fact, not even know these desires on any conscious level. But since I’m writing as an omniscient narrator, I for gorram sure should.

My main character is a would-be entrepreneur, though he uses that term only because it belongs to the argot of his world. (I tend to think of him more as an ambulance chaser, or a peddler of exotic used goods.)

Anyway for research I’ve been reading a book called Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days. It’s a collection of interviews with 32 now rich (if not all famous) entrepreneurs, from Craig Newmark of Craigslist to Steve Wozniak of Apple, about how they hit the big time.

The funniest thing is seeing how few of the companies still exist. Like, do you remember Marimba, or Lycos, or Viaweb? I mean, Excite may as well be extinct, that’s how much it matters to contemporary culture. On the other hand, Evan Williams is in the book, only it came out two years before Twitter was even a chirp on anyone’s radar.

This is startup speed, and it’s precisely the high-risk, high-value confusion of this scene I’m trying to capture — no one really knows what anything’s worth, but they’re terrified of missing out on the big bets.

I hit gold in terms of my main character’s motivations in the interview with James Hong:

I think entrepreneurs want to make money. It’s not that they do it for the money, but they want to make money. Because money is the measuring stick; it’s how they know if they’ve won or not. And I think a lot of what drives entrepreneurs is the kind of legacy they are going to leave. They want to make a mark in the world and feel like their life mattered… Part of that is to quench their ego’s thirst and say, “I matter.”

I actually think this is a universal human goal, or at least an American one. And it’s the legacy part I’m especially interested in, because it plays on so many levels in Dead SULs — the deceased my dude’s trafficking in, and the dead individuals’ own online heritage.

Also, this statement is hilarious to me coming from the co-founder of What a legacy to leave the world, indeed.

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