In last week’s post, I talked about character development, specifically about how to develop complex, nuanced personalities that will come through loud and clear in the narrative. One of my recommendations was to create a thorough backstory for each of the major characters, and at least a solid sketch for the minor players. You can read more about that here: Who Are You? Finding Your Character’s Personality.
Today, let’s focus on backstory.
The character today:
A good opening scene pulls a reader right into the action, or right into a character’s head. The character we meet on the page is already defined. They are already a complete person with likes and dislikes. Maybe they have a family, a job, a home. Maybe they are on the run. The point is, readers are meeting them where they are now, so we, the writer, need to know who that is.
- What do they physically look like?
- What are their major personality traits? Sarcastic, soft-spoken, well-mannered, etc.
- Are they married? Do they have children?
- Where do they live?
- Now dig a little deeper for the nuances. Do they need order or can they function in clutter and chaos? Do they make their bed in the morning?
- Are they a rule follower or breaker?
- Are they an adrenaline junkie? Do they love rollercoasters and skydiving?
Building the history:
Every character needs a history, and from that history you can tease out defining moments – those experiences or relationships that helped form the character into the person they are today. As you create this imaginary background for your character, think about your own life experiences. What from your past has helped define and mold you?
- What was their childhood like? Did they grow up with many siblings?
- Did they have a healthy or dysfunctional relationship with parents?
- Was there a teacher or mentor who influenced them?
- What is their work experience? Education?
- Have they ever been in love?
Backstory as motivation:
A character’s history impacts how they deal with current events or relationships, and something in that history is serving to motivate them now. As a writer, you need to understand the links.
Here’s an example from one of my own novels: My male protagonist, an officer in the military, crash-lands on a planet that he’s been sent to investigate (this is the inciting incident). But he’s there because years ago, as a newly commissioned commander, he and his squadron were called into a battle. It was late in the game, and they had to retreat, but not before he witnessed the destruction of a friendly battle cruiser, all hands lost. This was a defining moment for him, one that changed the course of his career and forced him to grow up quickly. When we meet him in the first chapter of the book, all that is ten years in the past, but that part of his backstory is still a major motivating factor for him.
When, where, and how should backstory come into your narrative? Let’s start with when it shouldn’t!
- Don’t give it all away in the first chapter. This will likely bore your readers, but it also won’t allow them the opportunity for discovery.
- Avoid the info dump anywhere in the writing. Readers flip pages when they get bogged down with too much detail. Sometimes, it’s impossible not to info dump in a first draft. There’s a great quote attributed to Terry Pratchett that says, “The first draft is you telling yourself the story.” So, tell yourself the story. Get it all out in an outline or stuffed into the first draft. Then, cut and finesse in subsequent drafts, sharing only the relevant backstory information.
If you know the backstory well, you’ll find strategic places to sprinkle in details throughout the story. Here are some suggestions for weaving backstory into the narrative:
- Use dialogue. “We met at your husband’s funeral last year.” There’s a lot of information in that one line.
- Use flashbacks, but sparingly. They work well when they feel organic.
- Parallel timelines. Moving back and forth between past and present can be an interesting narrative technique, as long as it doesn’t feel forced. If you can work the information into the present day without a parallel timeline though, that’s probably a sign not to use the technique.
- Sometimes, just a quick line to deliver an important piece of information is enough. She reminded him of his first love, the one who stomped on his heart.
Backstory creates the nuances that make your characters feel authentic. The more you know about it, the better you’ll be able to integrate it seamlessly into the story.