Telling character backstory is sometimes necessary to show why your character has a specific motivation or mindset. Yet it’s important to learn how to write backstory that will not bog your novel down in constant harking back to prior events that occurred before the present time of your narrative. Read 5 tips for using backstory better:
1: Choose what to explain using backstory and what to leave a mystery.
2: Only use backstory for characters to explain behaviour and plot developments.
3: Find how to write backstory without leaving your story’s present time.
4: Know when to tell backstory and when to show it.
5: Use narrative devices such as a prologue or beginning in medias res to get backstory out the way.
Let’s unpack each of these points. First, what is backstory exactly?
In fiction, backstory refers to the events that precede the narrative frame of the story itself. In a novel that shows bitter rivalry between sisters to ascend a kingdom’s throne, for example, the backstory could describe the origins of this strife in their father’s favouritism (this is the premise of Shakespeare’s King Lear).
The Oxford Dictionary defines backstory simply: it is ‘a history or background created for a fictional character’. Because backstory shows cause and effect it makes a story richer and more fascinating. Yet too much hopping back and forth to explain origins can become tiresome.
Choosing what to include as backstory wisely is key:
1. Choose what to explain as backstory and what to leave a mystery
Not every detail about every character’s past has to be explained. Using backstory effectively means using it for a purpose. You can use backstory to:
- Explain your characters’ psychologies; the origins of their behaviour and the forces influencing their decisions
- Increase suspense: Past events that precede and influence your narrative can create expectations of future developments
- Strengthen the reader’s emotional connection to your characters – their private histories can foster empathy and understanding
J.K. Rowling uses backstory effectively in her Harry Potter series, as a prime example. Rowling gradually reveals more and more about Harry’s late parents. This leads the reader to care and empathise with Harry. The details about his parents that emerge over time create affect and a fuller sense of the enormity of his loss. These details lead readers to invest emotionally in Harry’s quest to conquer their killer.
Like Rowling, choose details for backstory that increase affect and investment in story outcomes. It helps to ask questions about your character’s past life. If a character has a troubled past with addiction, for example, show the defining event that led them to either spiral down or seek help and get on the path to recovery.
2: Only use backstory for characters to explain behaviour and plot developments
E.M. Forster said ‘only connect’. This is essential when it comes to writing backstory. Make sure that any incident that occurs before the main narrative events of your story is relevant and illustrative. If your character has quit their job before the story starts, it only makes sense to mention this in passing or devote a flashback scene to this event if it is significant. Does it create a specific fear or motivation that will prove important to your character’s choices and development? If not, rather focus on details that do.
For example, if your character meets the romantic partner of their dreams and self-sabotages, the reader wants to know what motivates this behaviour.
Sometimes we fill first drafts with backstory because of a lack of story direction. We’re simply not sure where we want the story to go. This is why creating a plot outline helps. This is a scenario where backstory could be helpful. You don’t need to write a flashback to reveal this information:
3: Find how to write backstory without leaving your story’s present time
Your story can get bogged down quickly when you constantly leap back in time to show formative moments for characters. You don’t need to tell every bit of backstory using flashbacks. For the example above (a character who self-sabotages at the first sign of potential romance), you can also share backstory in present time narration.
For example, your character might;
- Open up to their love interest in a pivotal scene where they reveal mutual uncertainties or explain troubling preceding actions to each other
- Speak to a close friend about relationship fears, bringing up a past event that explains their hesitance
Sharing backstory via dialogue and conversation is a useful way to avoid too many dizzying flights back and forward in narrative time.
Another way to make sure your backstory isn’t too disruptive is to simply tell backstory rather than show it when appropriate:
4. Know when to tell backstory and when to show it
You may have read or been told ‘show, don’t tell’ many times. This advice is useful on one hand. Showing the reader a scene and immersing the reader in your characters’ experience makes your fictional world more vivid and real. Yet sometimes, telling is very necessary. It’s easier to cover important backstory without having to resort to a flashback if you simply put it in passing narration.
Here’s an example:
Frostbitten days like this took her back to the year she turned fifteen, when her mom had been in and out of hospital all winter and snowmen lined the neighbourhood, watching and waiting for something simultaneously inevitable and impossible.
In a single paragraph, you can tell something pivotal and affecting about your character’s past that contextualizes their present, without taking your novel out of its current time-frame.
5. Use narrative devices such as a prologue or beginning in medias res
Some backstory explains specific character actions or motivations. Other backstory explains the narrative trajectory of your novel as a whole.
For the latter type of backstory, a succinct prologue is an effective option for recounting what came before the main events of your story. A prologue can give a brief history that will help avoid messy retelling that interrupts the core action of your story.
Alternatively, you can begin your story in medias res (in the middle of the action). Trust that the reader can withstand a little uncertainty as you gradually reveal how your main characters got to this state of affairs.
Are you struggling to create character sketches and backstories? Use the Now Novel idea finder to prompt ideas or share your backstory ideas for feedback from the Now Novel community.
Read more of our top character writing posts via our character writing hub.