Many of our favorite characters are so beloved because their authors took the time to write a backstory that is as well crafted as it is memorable. Yet if handled poorly, backstories can become the most tedious parts of the book.
Good backstory is like talking with a fascinating person who has led an amazing life or gone through an extraordinary experience. You find yourself on the edge of your seat, wanting to find out more. Bad backstory is like being trapped with the most boring person at a party who insists on telling you about their entire life, down to the most tedious detail, in a monotonous voice and without even asking if you’re interested in it.
How Authors Approach Backstory
Developing background is an important part of creating characters for a novel. You can’t hope to write your characters accurately if you don’t know where they’re from, who their family is, and what major events in their lives have brought them to where they currently are in the novel’s timeline.
It can be tempting to include all of this within the main story, even for the minor characters, as a way for the author to show their work and get to the action of the novel. Other authors include it when each new character is first introduced in hopes that it will make the reader understand them better.
Authors who do this assume that because backstory is important and they’ve worked so hard on developing it, the reader will need to know it in its entirety. Unfortunately for them, this isn’t always the case.
There is also a common trend among storytellers is to use a tragic backstory in order to make villains sympathetic even when they don’t need to be. After all, a murderer can’t be excused for their crimes just because they were bullied as a child, for example, and it becomes especially problematic when addressing sensitive topics to establish a heartrending backstory.
Why Backstory is Important
It’s not as if a book can’t or shouldn’t include backstory, even an elaborate one. It’s just that if it is done poorly or laid on too thickly, it can bring about any of the following negative effects:
- Interrupt or upstage the main narrative
- Slow down the pace
- Introduce irrelevance to the plot
- Make a character either unsympathetic or sympathetic, contrary to their purpose in the story
Yet when executed correctly, backstory can make a character multi-dimensional, pave the way for a good plot reveal, or even open the door for a prequel or side story to help begin a series. Just as it is for people in real life, characters’ backstories will affect how they act in the present. Somebody who has experienced trauma in the past, for example, is much more likely to show symptoms of PTSD or have difficulty forming long-term relationships.
How to Include Backstory
So, you’ve worked out your characters’ backgrounds, right down to how many times they had to take a driving test. That’s an important part of the storytelling process, but how do you weave it into the story? Should you include it at all?
Let’s say that you’re writing a contemporary novel with a protagonist who works in marketing. Their backstory is that they previously dropped out of medical school. Depending on the main object of plot, this could be an important part of the novel or it could be completely inconsequential.
If the backstory isn’t relevant to the plotline, then there is no need to bring it up. Or, it could simply be mentioned in a throwaway line to add a little context wherever needed. Yet there are many ways to fit this backstory into the main one.
Perhaps the protagonist’s story arc focuses on overcoming their feelings of shame and guilt as a result of their past failures. This will make the character highly relatable to readers, as we all have regrets. Are they desperate to land a big client to pay off their student debt? This will explain their present motives to succeed at the office. Will their medical skills prove useful at some point? This makes the backstory relevant to the current story.
Once you’ve determined whether or not to include the backstory, and how much, you can introduce it to the plot when it is relevant. Nothing turns a reader off more than slogging through a long info dump at the beginning of the book, which ends up reading more like a Wikipedia page than a novel. You probably wouldn’t want to explain the protagonist’s past failures or influential experiences in the first scene of the book, or even within the first few chapters. You first want to establish the character, the present setting, and the main plot before bringing it up.
To work in our marketer’s backstory, say that a few chapters in, when they are on the subway home after a stressful day at work, they see an exhausted nurse. This causes them to contemplate how differently their life would have been if they had completed medical school. There are many possibilities this scenario could open up. Perhaps they realize how good they have it after all, fret over their outstanding student debt from a partial education they aren’t using, or ponder how they wouldn’t have met their love interest if they hadn’t gone to work at the marketing firm.
Alternatively, many authors hold back on revealing the character’s past until close to the end in order to create a plot twist. This does give a chance to reveal the backstory in full, or to utilize a flashback, but it can also be revealed as a short, brief line that suddenly changes everything the reader or other characters previously thought they knew about the main one. While you can explain the backstory in full at this point, it is often best to still leave at least a little mystery to it, especially if you are writing a series and wish to entice readers to buy the next book.
Even if you have written out backstories that won’t fit into the novel, don’t throw them out entirely. These could still be used as a prequel or side story, perhaps even a freebie for readers who sign up for your mailing list. J.K. Rowling includes many backstories for minor characters in the Harry Potter series on her website. They aren’t essential for understanding or enjoying the books, but they are nice little treats for hard-core fans.
Questions to Ask About Backstory
Before you lay on the info dump, ask yourself these questions about your characters’ backstories:
- Does it make the story or characters more interesting to include them?
- Are they relevant to understanding the story or character arcs?
- Can any of the backstories make an interesting plot on its own?
- Are any of the backstories more interesting than the main plot?
- Does it explain a character’s actions?
- Will any of them make for a satisfying twist?
- Where does it make sense to introduce the backstory?
Backstory can be difficult for authors to nail down, and a headache to fit into the plot convincingly. But when done right, it can make the whole story better and more complex, your characters more believable, and can provide you with endless plot possibilities.