Backstory is the history of each character in your novel. The reader meets these characters at a certain point in time. Since you’re telling a story, it’s at a particularly interesting or eventful moment in their lives. The way each of these characters behaves under duress—in the conflict you’re about to put them through—depends on who they are as a person. And, as you surely know, each of us got the way we are for a reason. The reason is your character’s backstory.
This post is about how to develop the backstory of each of your characters. Next week, we’ll talk about how to use that backstory in your novel.
Backstory Builds Character
Novelists all come to writing their stories in different ways. You might plot out every point before you get started, or maybe you write by the seat of your pants, or a mix of the two. Either way, things happen in your book because people set them into motion or react to the event. But why? What drives your protagonist to do the right thing while your villain is set on making mischief? Maybe it’s a matter of perspective. Maybe it depends on their life story.
Take the AMC hit TV series Breaking Bad as an example. Through the course of the series, Walt turns from mild mannered, family guy high school science teacher into a vicious drug lord. What are the chances? Well, it ends up making psychological sense. The writers show that Walt is highly ambitious and brilliant, yet, he keeps getting overlooked in life. He feels he missed a chance to monetize his intelligence in the past, and he grows jealous and resentful. Why should he be a low-paid teacher when former colleagues are making bank? Eventually the world finds that misjudging Walt for a Type B dad comes at its own peril.
Here backstory made the events in the show make sense. Most science teachers wouldn’t ever become drug kingpins, but Walt would. Backstory goes a long way toward explaining the psychology of your characters. How they interact with each other: flirty, standoffish, disgusted, etc, comes from who they are as a person. If two people see a twenty-dollar bill fall out of a woman’s purse, they might react very differently. Why does one immediately return the money while the other snatches it? The reason comes from their backstory.
Nature vs. Nurture
When considering backstory, think about nature versus nurture and how humans are a blend of both. Nature might have made a man’s stature small; nurture leads him to cower or overcompensate or be confident. Was he picked on? Did he overcome bullies? Did he grow up in a loving environment? Your characters, like all people, were dealt a hand at birth. We don’t choose our families, economic circumstances, our geographical region, or the way we look. As time goes on, these circumstances interact with the world and psychology, and lead us all—including people on the page—to become who we are today. Make sure you know why your characters are who they are.
Don’t Live in the Past
I’ll dive deeper into how to use backstory in the next post, but for now remember this. You, the writer, will benefit from knowing a lot about your characters’ psychological profiles and pasts. You definitely want to understand what motivates them. We, the readers, are different. We want each character’s actions to make sense, but we don’t need to know what everyone’s childhood was like. We don’t need to know about every heartbreak or success. Readers want to know what’s happening right now. Therefore, do your character sketches, but remember to keep the present story front and center when you’re writing. Developing backstory is important, but telling a riveting story is paramount.