Among the more disheartening critiques you can receive of your writing, “the protagonist was flat” ranks close to the top. While characters don’t have to be particularly likeable or admirable for readers to find themselves invested in the story, it is necessary that they be believable. Fortunately, there’s a great way to flesh out your characters and breathe life into them in a manner that makes them feel real: character backstory.
Basics of Character Backstory
So what is backstory? To put it simply, character backstory is your protagonist’s life story up until the point your novel begins. But if you think about your own life history, it’s easy to see how backstory is so much more than what you have personally experienced. Each individual’s story is informed by the experiences of the people they interact with, particularly their family. It’s possible for the actions of someone long-dead, for example, to have reprocussions in your life. (Which may happen in the case of an abusive grandparent or a child raised by billionaires.)
Because of this, it’s important to emphasize these two things:
1. Character backstory isn’t limited only to what the protagonist has lived through.
2. Only the relevant details which have molded the character are important to backstory.
Get to the Heart of Backstory
If you read about character development, there are a wide variety of approaches writers take to fleshing a character out. You can find interviews to “ask” your characters, lists of questions you should know about your character, worksheets to help you develop their life history.
While these things may work for some writers, personally I don’t really find it useful to know what my protagonist’s favorite ice cream flavor is. As a result, I tend to stay clear of the lists or games that ask questions like that.
What I do find useful, is figuring out the answers to these questions:
1. Who is my character at the beginning of the story?
2. Who are they/how have they changed by the end of the story?
You may recognize these questions as the basic ones you ask to figure out character arc.
How Character Arc Interplays With Backstory
Because character arc is vital to the plot of the novel, when getting to know your characters, you need to know where they start and finish, first and foremost. Then, armed with this knowledge, you can start to figure out everything that came before and everything that’s going to be a challenge in order for the character to change into the person you want them to be at the end of the story.
By knowing their character arc, it is easier to, for example, figure out why a character became so insecure. By understanding how you want a character’s insecurity to change, it’s also easier to come up with what things in the character’s backstory are going to make that change so difficult. Maybe she is insecure because she was always second fiddle to an older sibling. Maybe that older sibling is going to show up with an amazing accomplishment right when the character thinks they have finally broken free from that insecurity. See how that works? Here’s more on the relationship between character and plot: The Intersection of Plot and Character Development.
What Backstory to Include
As a result, the most important backstory to include in your novel is going to be the one that affects your character’s present journey. While there may be differing points of view on the subject, I would say that if it doesn’t affect the character’s journey, readers don’t need to know about it. World-building is important, of course, and backstory is a part of that. But knowing that your character once had a bad habit of chewing his nails isn’t likely to make readers feel a character is three-dimensional unless that nail-biting habit affects the character at some point in the story.
More importantly, backstory needs to be carefully layered into and throughout your novel. Readers don’t need to know everything about your character in the first chapter (or second, or third…). Approach the revelation of your character backstory the same way you would when you introduce yourself to someone on a date. You wouldn’t start by telling them everything about yourself, would you? No, you would allow for time and different interactions (aka, scenes) for them to get to know the “real you.”
Take the time to let your readers get to know your characters, one small tidbit at a time. It’s how real life works. It’ll work wonders for making your characters feel real, too.