Backstory is a brilliant tool when creating well-rounded characters. Read any writing guide and it will tell you the importance of creating three-dimensional characters, because readers want to know what makes a character tick.
The problem is, in our excitement to share our character’s backstory, we are often tempted to spill all of this out in our first chapter. It’s a common mistake, but too much backstory, too soon, will slow down your pace and draw the reader away from your plot. It’s like presenting your reader with a mouth-watering cake, but before you give them the fork, you explain the entire baking process when all they want to do is get stuck in.
So let’s take a closer look at the meaning of backstory and how by doing it right, your reader will be able to have their cake and eat it too.
What Is A Backstory?
In a nutshell, the backstory is everything that has happened to your character before the novel begins. This can be revealed by:
- Exposition – simply telling the reader about the past
- Flashbacks – where the reader is thrown back in time into the mind of the protagonist when the event occurred
- Reflection – where the character ‘thinks’ about the past while doing something else
- Dialogue – when a conversation explains past events
Sometimes, your protagonist doesn’t always know all of their backstory beforehand; some of the best novels reveal parts of a character’s backstory to the character, not just the reader.
Backstory impacts everything in your novel; who your character is, where they come from, why they react the way they do and ultimately your plot. Think about your own backstory, and the events that shape the person you are. All of your own backstory will impact the decisions you make, your view of the world and your reactions to certain events.
Knowing your characters as well as you know yourself, and transferring this quality, is what makes a good story. Give your characters authenticity and make their decisions realistic. The reader doesn’t need to know everything about them though, just as your friends and family don’t need to know everything about you.
Steven King said: ‘The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting.’
How To Create A Character Backstory
Now we understand what a backstory is, let’s look at how to create a good backstory. There are many examples through literature that do this well, from The Great Gatsby to A Christmas Carol.
Something to also consider is how for actors, knowledge of backstory is imperative in order to represent the characters they are playing better, which is why it’s just as important for you as a writer to know your character’s motivation. After all, aren’t we all acting out our character in our heads?
A good example is the hugely successful Star Wars.
In Star Wars we have Luke Skywalker. Mark Hamill portrays the character at the beginning as humble and bored with his life. He does this by portraying his impatience and by revealing his ambitious nature (just like his father, but he doesn’t know that yet!). It’s also a great way of seeing how effective it is to keep some backstory hidden from the characters as well as the viewers.
George Lucas would have known from inception that Luke was fathered by Anakin Skywalker who we then discover is the big baddie, Darth Vader. Imagine if this had all been blurted out in the first few scenes … there would have been a lot less excited kids in the cinema, that’s for sure!
With Luke’s discovery of this and his journey to becoming a Jedi, we see his character evolving as we discover more of his backstory. This is a really good way of seeing how effective a slow backstory reveal can be. In fact, a whole other series of films was built on Anakin’s backstory and the events that led up to the original film.
So, how can you create a compelling backstory for your characters?
Tips To Write Compelling Character Backstories
The best way to write a compelling backstory is to really dig deep into your character’s experiences and, most importantly, make them interesting (take a look at our guide on creating character bios). Nobody wants to read a lot of backstory about a protagonist hanging out the washing on a day it rained, unless fetching it in meant they were late for picking up their child who was then abducted!
There are many ways to write compelling backstories, but here are a few ideas to help you:
- Create a timeline for your character focusing on important life events.
- Sketch out small snapshots of their life around the time of these events – such as a diary. Writing a diary page can really help you step into your character’s shoes. Fill it with small details of your character’s likes and dislikes, friends, their favourite foods, books, films, songs, sayings, pieces of nostalgia around the time of the events. Your character’s likes and dislikes may change throughout their life. They may have loved a certain song around the time of a happy or sad event but now can’t stand it. This could trigger a reveal for this part of your backstory if it was heard on the radio at a key point in your story.
- Identify formative events which are relevant to your work. A near-death experience or an embarrassing moment, which dented your character’s confidence, could then be the crux that holds your character back later in life.
- Use real-life experiences. If you lost your parents in a busy shopping centre at Christmas when you were a small child, use this! It may have put you off large crowds or busy shopping centres. Maybe you forgot your lines in a school play once and it’s left you terrified of public speaking as an adult. There are so many experiences in our lives that impact our actions. So take some time to examine what it is that makes you, you. A reader will often feel a greater connection when a writer has used genuine experiences, because the chances are you will use something that others have experienced themselves.
- Do all of this with the knowledge that you will not need all of it in your novel. Much like a marinade, all these ingredients won’t go in the dish…you are just adding nuance and enhancing the flavour!
How To Include Backstory In Your Novel
The most important element to consider when including backstory is deciding when and where to reveal your information. Ask yourself what the backstory achieves, if it is necessary and why it needs to be revealed at that stage in your novel. Use backstory to your advantage, to reveal snippets to gain empathy from a reader, to explain a reaction to a situation, or to add a reveal or twist to your plot.
Know When To Reveal Your Backstory
Going back to drawing good writing from personal experiences, let’s say you almost drowned as a child and your friend invites you to an all-expenses-paid cruise. The idea horrifies you, your fear of water is something you never talk about, but in the circumstances, you may decide to reveal this past experience to explain your reaction to the invitation.
It’s exactly the same when revealing backstory for your characters. Let’s say you are at a cocktail party; the atmosphere is lively, and a funny anecdote is being told by a peer. Would you suddenly jump in with this long and detailed story of how you almost drowned as a child? Of course, you wouldn’t, it would feel inappropriate.
Revealing backstory in a novel should be the same as in life, it should be prompted by real-time events, songs, smells, or something that evokes that memory.
Don’t Overload The Reader With Backstory Early On
One of the most common mistakes I find, when reading first drafts, is opening chapters overloaded with backstory. We are living during a time where there is an abundance of published books hitting the shelves and with the surge in digital versions at low prices, it’s more important than ever to grab your reader’s attention from the first few pages.
It’s fine to add a small amount of backstory within these chapters, but keep them short. If you overload the reader with unnecessary information about a character they don’t yet know and love, your pace will fall flat very early on, and you may lose your reader before you’ve shown them the real beauty of your novel.
Focus on the best places to reveal your backstory in small digestible pieces to avoid your reader becoming overwhelmed with information.
Action Verses Backstory
Once you’ve written your first draft, go through your chapters and highlight the ‘action’ happening in real-time in yellow, then the ‘backstory’ – whether it is reflection or a flashback – in green. If you can see a large amount in green, you will be able to see just how much you are pulling your reader away from the contemporary plot and pace of your story.
Go through this section carefully, be hard on yourself and ask if it is all needed, especially if this is early on in your novel. One rule of thumb is to remember this saying: ‘If in doubt, leave it out.’
Show Don’t Tell
When you have identified essential backstory, try not to ‘tell’ it all to the reader. Although there are times where exposition works, it must be written incredibly well to keep the reader engaged.
Show don’t tell is one of those phrases that we use a lot in writing, and this is one of those instances that it really applies. Show and tell is all about balance, both are needed, but when backstory is involved, the more you show rather than tell, the better, because it keeps the reader in the ‘now’. You can do this either through dialogue, or by your character’s actions, or both!
For example, you could show the reader a character wearing an expensive suit, stepping up to a podium in front of a hundred people, beginning their speech with an unwavering smile: ‘When I was five, I wore hand-me-downs and had a stutter…’ Yes, I’m ‘telling’ in the literal sense, but here, I’ve shown my character’s backstory. You now know a) that my character is confident and doing well financially (or so it would seem!) b) they have overcome adversity and c) they used to have a stutter and were poor; all of this information is passed on quickly through an active scene. If I told this backstory, the ‘action’ would be paused, my reader would be pulled away, while leaving my ‘present’ character inanimately hovering at the edge of the stage.
Is Your Backstory Actually Plot?
If you’re reading this and have realised that you have a huge amount of interesting and relevant backstory to add to your novel, without which your story wouldn’t work, consider if this is actually a good plotline in its own right. If it is, set these scenes in the past and punctuate them throughout your story. That way, you can still reveal backstory in active scenes, rather than as flashbacks or reflection. As long as it really is relevant and interesting, it should continue to push your plot forward rather than dragging the pace behind.
So there we have it. I hope by reading this, you can see how important writing a compelling backstory is, and how revealing your important and exciting information at the right time will help make your novel as exciting as you know it can be.
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