No, really, it can.
At least, it’s going to help.
First, let’s be clear. You need a protagonist with a compelling backstory.
Saying this may seem counterintuitive at this point, since you’re already here reading a post about backstory, but I mention it because there are a surprising number of books where the main character(s) don’t have much of a backstory.
More importantly, they don’t have a compelling backstory that relates directly to the unfolding story.
By compelling, I mean it compels the character. It’s made them who they are. It’s created beliefs & driven them to actions, pre-story & in-story, that will drive the story forward.
Weak or all-but-absent backstory can lead directly to weak characters. If you have a problem with characterization or arcs, honing their backstory might give you your answers.
If your characters don’t have a powerful reason to be/think/do the things they are/think/do, it’s going to be very difficult to have them arc. Your Black Moment will be all about plot, not about your protagonist reaching deep into the black abyss of his inner self, facing his deepest fear, and climbing out, transformed, calling out, Okay people, let’s do this thing!
Or something like that.
Here are a few keys to help:
1-Give them a single defining moment in their backstory.
2- Layer it with two emotions.
3- Make the story events tap their backstory, hard.
4- Make the end state the opposite of the opening state.
5- Pro Tip: Reverse Engineering Backstory
1- A Single Defining Moment
Backstory is often rather…vague. Like a mist, it covers the past. They had “a tough life.” “Went to war.” “Lost a parent.” And so on.
And yet sometimes we go on and on, for paragraphs or pages, narrating it in with a plethora of minor, generic or uninteresting details, a sort of “My Hero 101” course, yet we somehow never get to the heart of the thing.
There are a lot of traumatic histories in the pages of fiction. But trauma, however horrific you make it, is not as powerful to read about as a SINGLE instance of something that scarred your character forever. A formative moment. A threshold in time when everything changed.
It doesn’t need to be the Biggest, Worst Thing Evah for the world at large. It just has to have shaped your character forever.
Paradoxically, the more specific you make it, the more universal it becomes. Like a country or blues song.
But really, it’s not paradoxical. Because the more specific you get, the more emotional you get.
Emotions are universal. Shame, guilt, fear, anger…everyone has experienced them. They suck us in. We relate. And then…we care.
Whatever your protagonist’s backstory, craft a moment in time that truly wrecked them.
It can represent the whole, or be a standalone event. Then deploy that moment. Don’t reveal it too soon, but do drop bread crumbs, so readers know something is up, and are dying to find out what really going on.
2- Layer It
Whatever emotion your protagonist has as a result of that formative event, don’t stop at a single emotion. Give it a second layer.
Anger? Under it is shame.
Shame? Under it is fear.
Fear? Under it is guilt.
Guilt? Under it is anger.
Or whatever. You get to pick the layers, just add another, deeper one your protagonist has been hiding even from themselves.
In fact, you can think of it as a third layer.
A hero might be commanding and in charge…
…because underneath it he’s afraid of being vulnerable (Why? Backstory reasons)…
…and underneath that, he’s ashamed. (Why? Formative event reason)
It’s almost like math!
As the story progresses (aka: gets worse and worse…and worse) he’ll be forced to face these things head on. To go deeper. To feel deeper.
This will push your story forward, because you can keep offering reveals for the reader, which creates rising tension.
And the coolest part is, these deeper layers hand you your Black Moment.
With this second (or third) layer, you have a deep, dark, juicy Pit of Despair to drop your heroine into before the final climax. A moment where she’s forced to face the inner truth she’s been avoiding all along.
Pro Tip: Whatever your protagonist realizes in their Pit of Despair, and what they do with it afterwards, is usually your theme.
3- Make Unfolding Story Events Tap Backstory, Hard
Don’t have a random plot you set a random character into. Weave them together.
Make this plot be perfectly crafted to deconstruct this character.
Give your protagonist a backstory (& a connected personality trait or two) that’s directly at odds with what they’re going to have to do in the story.
Sure, you might have an awesome plot that would be uncomfortable for anyone—I mean, who wants to fight an army of aliens?—but if you make it uncomfortable for your heroine specifically, because of her backstory, your readers will care a whole lot more.
Got a plot that requires confronting authority? Build a backstory where your hero never confronted.
Got a plot that requires building alliances? Craft a character who’s a loner because of Backstory Reasons.
Keep pushing your protagonist into situations that are difficult for them. Ensure the actions required are in direct conflict with your hero’s core beliefs & worst fears, which are derived from his backstory.
Escalate the demands on him—start small and get bigger.
This powers up your characters because it gives them stakes & motivation. With intense emotions underlying the things they do (or avoid doing) they tend to act in more dramatic, extreme, & interesting ways.
But it not only powers up characters, it powers up plot. Why? Because it makes the backstory relevant to the unfolding story.
Instead of being a pause in the action, backstory now becomes fuel that pushes the character—and the story—forward.
Knowing your protagonist’s backstory gives readers insight into how the plot event/requirement is especially hard for them. It makes them doubt what the character will choose to do, and whether he can handle what’s coming.
It raises tension.
That’s why readers turn the page.
4- Opening State & End State Are Mirrors Of Each Other
Set the end state for your character at the exact opposite of where they’ll begin the story, belief-wise, emotion-wise, and action-wise (i.e. what they can &/or are willing to do).
Craft a backstory so the deeds the character will be required to do at the end are impossible to imagine when the story opens.
- A competent warrior who has to rally a village to stop the bad guys from destroying it is fine. A clumsy, shy shepherd who’s always hunkered in the background and followed orders because he’s never had what it took to succeed, who has to rally that village and take on the leadership role? Way more powerful.
- An amateur sleuth who wants to solve the murder of a coworker is good. An amateur sleuth who is wracked by guilt for not having protected her younger brother when they were kids? Way more powerful. Failure becomes personal.
- A gung-ho defense attorney who has to take on a cabal of wealthy, corrupt investors to save a backwoods town is good. An ambitious corporate V.P. determined to crawl out of her backwoods past, who’s built a career serving that cabal of wealthy, corrupt investors, and now has to fight them on to save a backwoods town? Way more powerful.
In many ways, this is the difference between a protagonist and a hero.
Yes, what a character achieves in a story can create a hero.
But how difficult it is, how deep they have to dig, how much they have to change, is what makes them memorable.
It’s also what makes people buy your next book.
5- Bonus Pro Tip: Reverse Engineer Backstory
You can work backward to craft powerful backstory.
If you’re already clear on some (or all) of your story, use it to craft a compelling, intertwined backstory.
Does your story already have:
- A pretty plot?
Craft a backstory that makes doing those things really hard for this character specifically.
Ask: For whom would these events be the most difficult, and why? What’s a backstory reason someone could be scared/reluctant/poorly equipped to handle this plot?
- A beautiful, devastating All Is Lost/Black Moment or climactic moment?
Mine their backstory to find a way that Black Moment or climactic moment can tap into their worst fears.
Ask: What’s something the character could never have pictured themselves doing at the start of the story? What backstory would create a person who couldn’t picture doing this thing?
- A MacGuffin to pursue?
Give them a backstory reason to really want that thing, or to really want to avoid that thing. i.e. Make it stand for something.
Ask: What can the MacGuffin stand for? What deeper thing will they prove/have when they seize the MacGuffin? Or, what can they be scared of related to the MacGuffin? What can they have worked for their whole life that the MacGuffin will achieve, or threaten?
- A villainous enemy to vanquish?
Find something in your protagonist’s past where someone or something just like that enemy conquered them.
Ask: Who or what could have hurt them or a loved one in the past that has traits/similarities to the current bad guys or antagonistic forces? Alternately, who or what just like the villain could have aided your protagonist in the past, and blinded them to the truth of the enemy in the current story?
- A romantic partner?
Ask: What could have happened in the past that makes the other romantic lead seem to be the worst person in the world for them? In a romance, do this twice, once for each romantic lead.
Now, go craft some powerful backstory!
I’d love to hear how it goes. If you run into problems, feel free to drop me a line at [email protected].
Kris is teaching starting Monday:
- Crafting Must-Read Backstory: Write Backstory Your Readers Are Dying to Read with Kris Kennedy ~ February 25 – March 10