I’m just going to say it…Backstory gets a bad rap. Like Holden Caulfield, one could make the case that Backstory’s troublesome reputation is well-deserved. On the other hand, a strong argument could be made that like Holden, Backstory is simply misunderstood and doesn’t know how to eloquently express itself. I firmly ascribe to the latter.
Before we jump into Four Tips for Writing Backstory, let’s first define what backstory is and what it isn’t. Oddly, backstory can be explained in a single word: prequel. In other words, it’s the story of what happened to a character before he or she is introduced in the narrative for the very first time.
Backstory is prequel—the aggregate and cumulative life experiences the character has before the reader meets him or her for the first time.
Backstory is not narrative. It is not flashback. It is not internal monologue. It is not memory. Many writers do not understand this, which is the reason why so many acquiring editors run away when they see Backstory show up at the party.
TIP #1 – Take it Seriously & Do the Work
Some of you might already be jaded. You’ve read too many novels where the authors failed to properly manage backstory and so you’ve decided that developing a character’s backstory is a waste of time. Readers don’t care what happened before the narrative started, so neither should you. This is a BIG mistake.
Characters deserve a backstory, because what happened in their life before we meet them informs their motivation and behavior in the narrative.
Imagine if there was a device that could wipe out your memory, so all you needed to worry about was the future and what was going to happen to you next. Would you raise your hand and shout “Me, me, I’m next, please wipe my memory”? I seriously doubt it. Why? Because memories matter. You’d tell me that your experiences—your accomplishments, your failures, your relationships, the love you’ve given and received—make you who and what you are. The same is true for the characters in your book. Characters deserve a backstory, because the prequel that was their life before we meet them, informs their motivation and behavior in the narrative.
TIP #2 – Backstory Should Never Be Boring
This is obvious but needs to be said. Our daily lives are largely filled with mundane, repetitive, routine activities. We live thousands of days that we don’t remember—days lost in the fog of sameness. These are not the days we tell stories about at a dinner party. Not the things we celebrate, remember, and share with people we want to impress. So, when you’re creating a backstory for your character, think about the “signpost” moments in your own life and use those as a guide. What’s important with backstory is the defining moments of a character’s life that have impacted their personality. The key is to map out the watershed experiences that have already impacted the character’s worldview and state of mind when we meet them.
TIP # 3 – Not Sure Where to Start, Use a Checklist
Let’s assume I have you convinced of the importance of creating a compelling backstory, but you’re still struggling. No problem, here’s a handy-dandy list of questions you can answer:
- What is the worst thing that’s happened in your character’s life?
- How recently did said “worst thing” happen and how did it impact the character’s perception of herself and her perception of the world at large?
- What is the best thing that’s happened in your character’s life?
- How recently did said “best thing” happen and how did it impact the character’s perception of herself and her perception of the world at large?
- How many different jobs has your character had? What were they and why do they matter?
- What is your character’s family situation? How many family members are living, how many have passed away? How intimate and healthy (or dysfunctional) are his relationships?
- Has this character been betrayed, cheated on, bullied, lied to, taken advantage, and/or abused? How have these occurrences impacted the character?
TIP # 4 – Titration is the Key
Whether you’re single or not, imagine for a moment that you’ve been set up on a blind date and you’ve agreed to meet this potential suitor for coffee at your favorite neighborhood café. You greet each other, order coffees, and then this stranger starts to talk. And he talks. And he talks. And he tells you everything about his life, details all his past relationships, and then starts confessing his most intimate feelings and darkest secrets. Are you cringing yet? If somebody did this in real life, you’d be looking for the exit to run away as fast and far as you can. Why? Because it’s too much. Too fast. Too uncomfortable.
Well, the same hold’s true for backstories. Think of every reader as a blind date. The last thing you want to do is turn him or her off right out of the gate. Don’t data dump. It’s lazy, awkward, and has the opposite effect of what you want to achieve after putting in all the hard work of coming up with a great backstory.
Remember titration in high school chemistry, where you have to painstakingly add one drop of reagent at a time over time until finally, the desired chemical reaction occurs? You want to do the same thing with backstory in your narrative.
The key to telling a great backstory is “titration.” You want to dribble it out over time—a little bit here, a little bit there. Tease and tantalize the reader with tidbits and details about the character’s past. Make them want to know more and then make them wait for it. The result is so much more powerful than barfing out five pages of flashback, reminiscence, internal monologue in Chapter One.
In summary, less is more on the page when it comes to backstory. The exercise of creating a character’s backstory is almost more important than sharing it with the reader in narrative prose. Because you went through the effort of getting to know your character’s journey before he or she appears on the page, that knowledge and intimacy will inform the character’s attitude, dialogue, decisions, and emotions throughout the story. This is the ultimate goal of backstory in the first place!
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