Backstory is the foundation of everything your character says and does.
We all know that events from our past, even right back to our childhood, have shaped who we are today and affect the way we react to situations. I’ve always been tenacious, right back to the age of four. One donkey ride and I was in love with everything horsey. This obsession drove me to wish on the north star every night, save all my pocket money, and pester my parents until they relented and finally took me to riding lessons. I knew what I wanted, and did everything in my power to get a horse of my own. It took nine years, but I never lost sight of that dream, or stopped working towards it.
This tenacity affects the passion and drive in everything I do as an adult too. I attribute this to getting my first suspense novel, “Inheriting Fear”, published.
When you write your characters, think of them like real people with families, jobs, childhoods, dreams and fears. You need to be as intimately familiar with their backstory as you are with your plan for them in the story.
Some authors like to write detailed biographies, or keep character profiles, and others prefer a few pictures that inspire them, or to jot down key characteristics as they appear in the story. It doesn’t matter how you choose to document your character’s backstory, so long as you’re aware they have one, and have delved deep enough into it that you understand what is driving them through this story.
What is backstory?
There are various definitions of backstory, but for the purposes of writing a fictional story, I like to define it as:
Anything that happened to a character (or place) before a particular moment in the story, which provides context to the story.
The important word is context. It’s not enough to throw a heap of your character’s history in as filling, no matter how fascinating it may be to you. Every bit of backstory that you include, must be relevant to what’s going on in the story at that moment, and add to the reader’s understanding of your character in relation to their journey through this story.
Backstory is an honest to goodness super power.
I’m not kidding. Backstory is the very foundation of your story, and without it the story you build will be shaky: your characters won’t be adequately motivated; readers will struggle to empathise with them; and the depth required to produce a three-dimensional world will be missing.
This particular super power can:
- Provide a base line from which to show personal growth by your character.
- Prevent the dreaded information dumps.
- Supply believable motivation for everything your character does.
- Reveals where a character’s morals, hopes and fears originated.
Backstory is as vital to story-telling as chilli is to a potent curry. But just like the chilli, it isn’t easily seen, because it plays a supporting role. It must be chopped into tiny pieces and sprinkled sparingly throughout so the flavour can infuse everything it touches without overpowering it.
I prefer to start at the end and work backwards.
When I’m figuring out who my characters are and what they want, I think about where they are going to end up by the conclusion of this story. Then I ask myself a lot of questions to really dig deep into their psyche and figure out why they want it, what they’d be prepared to do to get it, and what deep-seated fear is lurking around so I can really push them to their limits.
- What is it they want more than anything right now in their life?
- Why do they want it?
- Why it is really important to your character?
Step into their past to find out what is driving them towards this goal.
E.g. John may want a new Ferrari, because it’s a status symbol of his promotion.
But why? The reason he wants a status symbol is to rub his success in his father’s face. Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. But why? Because his father put every last dollar into poker machines, and eventually drove away John’s mother. John spent his teenage years being judged for his father’s choices, hungry, wearing tatty clothes, and avoiding debt collectors. He did things he’s not proud of, just to stay alive.
When he finally got out, he was determined to never want for anything again, so has pursued the top of his career no matter what it took.
- What are they afraid of way down inside?
Sometimes this will be a fear they have never admitted to anyone else, and may even be desperately trying to ignore its existence at all, but it’s there, lurking.
E.g. John thinks he wants to accumulate all of this wealth and assets, but the real underlying issue is that he’s afraid he is a no-hoper, just like his father. He’s not just trying to prove this to his father, or his work colleagues, or friends, but deep down inside he’s trying to prove it to himself.
Now you have all the ammunition you need to make your character’s life a living hell. Strip the things they care about from them and make them have to face those deep dark fears head-on. When your characters are at their lowest point, the reader will really get to see what they’re made of. What sort of person they are when life isn’t all sunshine and roses.
And all this stemmed from backstory.
Authentic characters are true to their backstory.
Once you know your character’s backstory inside-out, and understand how it is driving the current plot, goal, and motivation, you are well on the way to having an authentic character. But remember, every time your character has to take action or make a decision, think about where they came from and what is driving them. Ask: Would that person really do that?
If the reader doesn’t believe that your character would behave that way, speak that way, make that decision, then you’ve lost engagement.
Even antagonists need to have well fleshed-out backstories, because they have a reason for doing what they’re doing and wanting to reach their own goal. They even have deep-seated fears and desires. If you don’t know what those are, then it’s unlikely you are making the most of their ability to stand in your main character’s way.
Success relies on the judicious delivery of backstory.
The way backstory is delivered can mean the difference between the reader discovering information for themselves, and having it forced down their throats. (Aka the dreaded info dump.)
By allowing the reader to actively discover how past events have affected a character, and feel the character’s inner turmoil as they face their fears, they can better appreciate the choices that character makes and why. Now that’s a powerful spice!
Here are a few ways that you can work backstory in without dumping great wads of it in any one place.
- Dialogue – this is interactive and involves other characters.
Instead of: “As you know, Bob, I used to be a rodeo clown.”
Try something like: Bob picked up a photo from the cupboard. “Don’t tell me; you are the entertainment for kid’s parties.”
Emily laughed. “Close. I was a rodeo clown until dad got sick last year.”
- Internal thoughts (self-talk) – are a great way for your character to think through a situation in relation it to a past event in order to justify their actions.
- Secondary characters – useful to reveal backstory that the main character doesn’t want others to know. They can ask questions, interfere, eavesdrop, or just lend a sympathetic ear.
E.g. In my books, “Inheriting Fear”, Detective Patterson discusses a case file over the phone with another policeman, thus gaining background information that he couldn’t from the official report.
- Flashbacks are one of the few times you can get away with a larger amount of backstory in one place (but I still recommend erring on the side of brevity). In a flashback you’re not just telling the reader information they need to know, but transporting them back to another time and place to show This allows the reader to experience the event as though they are there, feeling, seeing, tasting, and hearing along with the character.
As you can see, I’m passionate about the importance of backstory, but also the importance of its role being supportive. Use these tips the next time you infuse backstory, and give it the respect that a critical ingredient deserves.
Mild-mannered kindergarten teacher, Neve Botticelli, leads a double life. At home with her paranoid father, she is a combat trained survivalist who lives off-the-grid.
When self-made billionaire, Micah Kincaid, storms into town in search of his four-year-old son, Rowan, he’s pushy, entitled, and stands for everything Neve despises.
But something far more sinister than a cheating estranged wife, is lurking in rural Turners Gully, and it has its sights set on little Rowan’s inheritance. It turns out there is one thing Micah and Neve can agree on, and that’s keeping Rowan safe.
As they work together to free Rowan, they glimpse beneath one another’s guises, and realise that falling in love could be even more dangerous than hunting deadly criminals.