Backstory helps your characters wind their way deep into readers’ hearts. However, done poorly it can make readers tune out. It’s kind of like salt: either too much or too little will make the entire dish unpalatable.
So how do you develop characters with deep and relatable backstories? Here are some tips:
People see themselves as individuals, not as caricatures or stereotypes. They want to read characters that feel just as three-dimensional.
If a character does hew to a stereotype, have a reason — one that goes beyond “because they’re [insert demographic description here].” Think about their backstory and what might have led them to be this way.
But don’t miss the opportunity to challenge stereotypes with your writing. I love reading YA novels where the group’s token nerd/hacker is a girl. Weevil’s character on the TV show Veronica Mars challenges Veronica’s — and viewers’ — beliefs about ethics and criminal behavior. Fiction is a powerful tool for increasing our empathy. Put it to good use.
Avoid lengthy flashbacks and info dumps.
We’ve all met someone who seizes any opportunity to launch into a long-winded story. And we all know how we feel when we sense another monologue coming on. Readers feel the same way about so-called info dumps, including long flashbacks.
Contrast that with the feeling of learning a juicy new tidbit of information about a friend. You want to ask them more about it, right? That person becomes more interesting to you because you realize you’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg.
We don’t get to share our full personal history with a new friend all at once. Neither do your characters. Keep passages of pure exposition and backstory as brief as possible. Allow readers to get to know your characters the way they’d get to know anyone: by watching them in different situations and listening to their conversations with a variety of people.
Don’t put all your backstory into ink on the page.
By the end of your novel revisions, you’ll know a lot more about your characters than your readers ever will — and that’s okay. Strange though it may seem, this invisible backstory makes your writing a lot stronger. Readers don’t need to see it to benefit from it.
Your deep knowledge of your characters informs every line of dialogue, every reaction, every thought. It’s a deep well, a central place from which you draw a multitude of seemingly unrelated details. And it will make your characters feel completely real and authentic.
So if you end up cutting your favorite chapter, don’t fret. It’s still with you — and us — between the lines of the final draft.
Give yourself time.
Just like in real life, getting to know a character takes time. It’s a process. You may write and rewrite chapters several times, cut huge sections of prose, or make a major discovery about a character midway through revisions.
Think of your first draft as the first phase of a long-term relationship. You may finish it thinking you know all there is to know about your characters, but they will find ways to surprise you. Keep an open mind, keep asking questions, and — most important of all — keep writing.