5 character background writing tips: Better backstory

Learning how to write a backstory requires balancing present and past narration. What is backstory? The simplest backstory definition is ‘a history or background created for a fictional character’ (OED). Read 5 steps that will help you write relevant, illustrative backstories:

1. Decide what events in characters’ pasts shape them

Backstory is a synonym for ‘character history’ in a way. It’s the web of formative experiences that precede and influence your characters’ desires, fears and motivations.

Every time you create a new character, think about their history. What could explain the way they are now? For example, if your character is extremely competitive, what past experiences could have shaped this approach to life? For example:

  • A competitive character might have grown up in a large family where siblings were always competing for attention and/or acknowledgment
  • They could have been raised with specific world views (e.g. ‘You have to be the best to succeed’)
  • They might feel they failed in something and their strong desire to excel above others could be driven by fear; the desire to never fail again

Once you have an idea of the earlier experiences that drive your characters, you can use these backstory ideas to craft scenes that show the impact of your characters’ histories. For example, you might decide to show a character whose competitive nature was formed in sibling rivalries going home for the holidays where these old rivalries will resurface.

2. Balance how you show backstories

Backstories can be revealed in several ways.

Firstly, you could simple ‘tell’ backstory. This is the ‘Once upon a time…’ that begins fairy tales.

Expository backstory is risky, though. Too much telling feels bland, since we experience the story at one remove. Even so, it’s not always bad to tell the reader (rather than show) a character’s past. In epic fantasy novels, for example, prologues often give readers context for age-old conflicts. In this case, telling backstory could seem the most efficient way to clarify how the past lives on in the present.

Charles Dickens opens David Copperfield with expository backstory, yet he avoids bland info-dumping:

‘I was a posthumous child. My father’s eyes had closed upon the light of this world six months, when mine opened on it. There is something strange to me, even now, in the reflection that he never saw me; and something stranger yet in the shadowy remembrance that I have of my first childish associations with his white grave-stone in the churchyard, and of the indefinable compassion I used to feel for it lying out alone there in the dark night, when our little parlour was warm and bright with fire and candle […]’ (p. 1)

The backstory here gives context for story development (David is sent away when his mother eventually remarries, unhappy partially due to his loyalty to his late father).

Even though told via exposition, Dickens keeps David’s backstory interesting by including emotional description (the gravestone ‘locked out’ of the warmly lit house).

In addition to expository backstory, you can also reveal your characters’ histories gradually. Details of characters’ pasts that lie outside the main narrative time frame can emerge via:

  • Dialogue – characters share intimate or revealing details of their pasts with each other
  • Flashbacks – an experience or encounter triggers vivid recollection
  • Parallel time frames – a character’s story unfolds alongside an earlier time setting

Because there are so many different ways to write character backstory, it’s easy to balance characters’ backgrounds with their present lives without info-dumping.

For example, in one piece of dialogue your character might reveal a difficult relationship with a parent. In another scene, an event (such as the parent in question being admitted to hospital) could trigger a memory that deepens the reader’s understanding of this relationship.

Spreading out the events that happened earlier in characters’ lives this way makes it easy to build backstory subtly. Unlike an info-dump approach, this balances formative experiences with narration focusing on the here and now.

3. Ensure character background is relevant to choices and actions

When learning how to write backstory, ‘relevance’ is a key term. Any event you describe as a precursor to the main events of your story needs to be important for later developments.

For example, in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the villain has killed Harry’s parents long before the story opens. This backstory helps to explain the protagonist’s complete commitment to defeating and confronting the series’ villain, no matter the personal danger this might involve. The is a major emotional driver behind this quest.

Backstory doesn’t have to show cause and effect this explicitly. For example, in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the protagonist murders a mean-spirited pawnbroker who he sees as a great source of misery in the world. At one point, it emerges that the anti-hero protagonist once wrote an essay arguing that people who take actions that benefit society as a whole should be above the law. This piece of backstory doesn’t explicitly show cause and effect, but it does give the reader an idea of how the character intellectually justifies murdering the pawnbroker in cold blood to himself.

Even if your backstory doesn’t show explicitly how earlier events lead to your characters’ present, make sure it gives readers key information that contextualizes characters’ goals and actions in present time.

4. Check whether backstory dominates opening pages

Backstory-heavy story beginnings are often boring. A wash of facts about the past delays getting to action and more recent (or present-day) story events. So if you do write backstory at the start of your story, make sure it is engaging and interesting in itself.

If you’ve filled your beginning pages with backstory already, summarize what key plot points it conveys. Make a plan for how you will introduce this information more evenly throughout your story.

5. Cut as much non-vital backstory as you can

The problem of having lots of backstory in your novel is that the action begins to feel remote, already over. Reserve large paragraphs of backstory to convey core, emotion-laden plot points.

For example, the Showtime series Dexter (based on Jeff Lindsay’s book series), reserved backstory for explaining Dexter’s evolution into an ethically complex serial killer. One of the key pieces of backstory revealed later in the story is that Dexter saw his mother murdered in front of him when he was a toddler. The narrative structure mimics the repression of a disturbing memory, building up to this revelation.

This use of backstory adds a degree of psychological realism. It characterizes Dexter believably, making us empathize with him despite his crimes. The backstory serves an important function, increasing the viewer’s emotional investment in the character’s story arc.

If you’re struggling to juggle your character’s past and present, read this post on how to avoid excessive backstory.

Get help on improving or cutting back your backstory now on Now Novel. Use the Idea Finder to work out character histories, along with your novel’s theme and mood.

 

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