Everyone has history – even if no one else actually reads about it.
“In the writer’s mind, even a backstory has a backstory.” ― Terry a O’Neal
“Once upon a time.” Every good writer knows that stories don’t actually start with this phrase, no matter what’s written on the page, just as “the end” rarely means that the tale is truly finished. Because if the author has done the legwork, then the story began well before the opening line of the book.
Without sufficient backstory, worlds are only two-dimensional, and characters are shallow imitations of themselves. This makes it much harder for readers to really dive in and get invested in the story. After all, who can relate to a world with conflicts that are only painted in shades of black and white? Or characters that have no past influencing the present, the future? And no real people are ever just good or bad, evil or virtuous―why would you want to read about fictional entities who don’t display any depth or development?
Backstories often get a bad wrap as being unnecessary info dumps that cause your readers’ eyes to glaze over as they skim the page, waiting for something exciting to come back up to make the book worth reading. But here’s the thing. As detailed as you might get, and as crucial as some of that backstory may be to understanding your character’s motivations in the present storyline, your readers won’t see half of it. Ideally, they won’t even see twenty-five percent.
Why is that? Aside from that tendency to go on autopilot that I mentioned, readers prefer to get to know your characters the same way that we learn about the real people around us. You don’t sit down in a coffee shop with someone you’ve just met and then listen while they lay their entire personal history out on the table alongside a chocolate chip muffin for you to digest all at once. It’s boring as hell, and it’s too much too soon. You’re never going to remember it all, and it’s impossible to differentiate what pieces matter and which are just fluff―entertaining, sure, but generally unimportant to the current story. Likewise, it’s just as uncomfortable sitting across from someone you don’t know, who isn’t giving anything away, yet wants to hold your attention in the here and now.
Luckily, you can create and use character backstories to your story’s advantage.
Laying the foundation
Think of your character backstories as foundations for not just the characters themselves, but also for the larger narrative. It’s similar to world-building, just on an individual level rather than within the greater scope of the story’s setting. Our pasts help us make sense of our present situations, and the key is to understand the person about whom you’re writing just as well as you know yourself, without going overboard in your manuscript’s expository sections.
But before you can decide what your readers need to know and what you should keep to yourself, you’ve got to actually create the backstory for each character, minor or major. Start with the basic stuff: names, ages, social and economic backgrounds, the number of brothers and sisters they have, if their parents are still alive and present, what they do for a living. All of this is surface information, details that are easily incorporated into the story without too much explanation.
Then there comes the heavy. And really, you sort of got started on it when you were answering all of the easy questions. So, the parents are still alive, but are they present? Are they a point of contention because they give your character hell at every turn? Or, are they a source of comfort, a soft place to land when things get hard? Then there are the social and economic factors to consider. How might these details shape the way your character sees the world and relates to it? Is their job one that puts them in the middle of familial or community debates? Does their job take up too much time, according to their significant other? All of this contributes to the ways in which your character responds to a difficult situation: external or internal.
Personally, I like to keep a running document for my characters that I can refer back to anytime I’m finding it difficult to write an appropriate response, or just need to remind myself of who exactly this character is. The entries differ for each figure, depending on their “screen time” in the story, but basically they contain their histories, their family ties, even preferences like coffee versus tea. Why go into such depth if I know I won’t use all of it in the story? Because there are a million little things that make us who we are, and most of them are hardly noticed by anyone but ourselves and those closest to us. But, that doesn’t make them any less real or influential on our daily lives. The same can be said for each of your characters, and when you know them inside and out, it shows. Sometimes, in ways you wouldn’t have ever expected.
Making the cut…or not
Now comes the hard part: making the cut. How much is too much? Think back to when I mentioned how overwhelming it is to hear someone’s life story all at once. Just as it would be on a coffee date, it’s too much. Better to learn the surface stuff at the beginning, then sprinkle in the heavier elements as they become relevant. And no matter how interesting some parts of your character’s backstory are, you have to accept that they might never actually be relevant to the narrative.
Let’s take an example from a popular book series for simplicity’s sake. Katniss Everdeen isn’t a frilly, flamboyant character, but right from the start of The Hunger Games series, we know quite a bit about her. We know that she lives with her mother and sister in a poor district, that her father used to be a huge part of her life until he died, and that she’s a quiet rebel, sneaking into the woods to hunt with her friend Gale so that her family and others in their community don’t starve. While some of this hints at weighty backstory, we’re only skimming the surface for the time being. The author, Suzanne Collins, is giving us a taste of Katniss’s life so we’ll see what anyone who met her would: pieces, not the whole picture.
It’s only as the series progresses that we learn more in between the horrors of the games and the increasingly tense political situation in Panem. Her relationship with her mother and why it’s so strained, the reason her father died, how she already felt indebted to Peeta (which gives us another valuable component of her character that will come into play again and again): all of this is gradually fed to us in brief expository sections that we can easily swallow and move on from, all the while keeping the information in the backs of our minds until we need to recall it. Even little things like her favorite color contribute to her character, but are woven into dialogue sections when it makes sense to reveal them and reinforce just who Katniss is on the whole.
You might be tempted to throw everything that makes your main character who they are at your readers at the start, “get it out of the way” as it were. But beware; what you see as a time-saver might be what turns your readers off for good. You’ve heard of everything in moderation, right? If you put in the effort to develop your character over the life of your novel, or series, you’ll get to use the best parts of their histories to make the story authentic and relatable. And that, my dear writer, is how you’ll reach through the pages and win over more readers.
The same applies to being stingy with your character backstories. If the readers don’t know your characters, they won’t understand them or why they’re handling conflicts as they are. People like to read stories they can immerse themselves in, that they can relate to, which is why it’s so important to be able to write the characters as if you were them, get inside their heads and represent them as honestly as you can. You can’t do that if you withhold or skim over details like why your main character is afraid of the dark, yet still show them freaking out every time they’re forced to confront some degree of darkness. It’s confusing and frustrating not to understand the source of these behavioral quirks, and it keeps your character stagnant because if you don’t know the source or reason behind the way things are, you can’t possibly know how to go about changing them. Or, make the call of whether or not they need to change at all.
I get it. Your characters are your babies. You brought them into this world, and even if you eventually have to take them out, a lot of time and thought went into making them who they are. It’s tempting to show them off, or even keep them to yourself, but the truth is that there needs to be a balance between common knowledge and mystery in order for them to feel real in the context of your novel.
Finding that balance takes a lot of editing, both by yourself and with a trusted second pair of eyes, and ultimately, there is no one right way to create and use character backstories. But with a little practice and plenty of revisions, you can find the happy medium between too much and not nearly enough.