Knowing how to create a character backstory that feels real will give your fictional characters depth. ‘Backstory’ refers to any significant events that occurred prior to the main action of your novel. Here are ten tips for crafting character backstory better (read on for fuller explanations):
How to create a character backstory: 5 key tips
Tip 1: Backstory is not the main story so don’t let it dominate
Tip 2: Use backstory to explain your character’s development and raise the stakes
Tip 3: Make sure the backstory isn’t more interesting than the main story arc
Tip 4: Avoid the dreaded ‘info dump’
Tip 5: Pace the release of backstory information to sustain the reader’s intrigue
1: Backstory is not your story
The backstory is not your story. This is key, and although it may seem obvious, you need to keep it at the forefront of your mind because if you are not careful, backstory can overtake the story you are trying to tell.
2: Use backstory to refine your character’s development
How can backstory help with character development? We are all products of both nature and nurture. The significant events that have happened to us throughout our lives both for better and for worse have shaped us. A bad childhood, an abusive relationship, an inspiring mentor, a lost love, a challenge overcome or perhaps a challenge that defeated the character can all create additional motivation and obstacles.
For example, one use of backstory is to raise the stakes for the character. Perhaps your character nearly drowned as a child and has been terrified of water ever since. Later on, when you throw your character into a river and give her minutes to figure out how tosave herself, she has an additional obstacle to overcome due to this phobia.
Using backstory in this way also allows your character to grow and change over the course of your novel, and this is an important arc for a protagonist. By giving your character trials that are particularly significant in terms of the character’s personal psychology and having the character successfully overcome the trial, that character will change more than if the challenge faced lacked the same baggage.
By the same token, backstory that involves good things in the character’s past can be useful as well. Backstory can show readers the strength of a character’s attachment to people, places or ideas and thus make it more painful when the character faces the loss of any of those things. Backstory can also make a character vulnerable in other ways. For example, your protagonist might instinctively trust someone she meets because that person reminds her of her beloved sister. As a result, she will be less likely to pick up on red flags that this person means her harm.
However, backstory has its dangers as well:
3: Make sure your main story arc is the most interesting
One danger is that the backstory is more interesting than the actual story. If your backstory starts to overtake your main plot, you may be telling the wrong story. Listen to your first readers on early drafts as well. Sometimes it may be difficult for you as the writer to see where you may have allowed the backstory to become too central to your story.
Another danger of backstory is using it in a way that is too obvious. You must introduce the information from the backstory skillfully so that you do not telegraph to your reader what you plan to do with it. Integrating it into the story and having a reason for its reveal will make the reader less likely to wonder why it was introduced in the first place and predict its return later. The near-drowning is a good example. A sharp reader might pick up on a piece of information like this and expect it to come up again. However, what if the information is introduced in the context of another dramatic event in the story? Perhaps the protagonist’s child or someone else close to her nearly drowns one day and the protagonist is traumatically reminded of her own close call. In this way, the backstory will seem to be adding weight to an incident currently happening as opposed to being a setup for something in the future.
Such an incident is also an opportunity for smoothly introducing backstory, and this is another aspect of backstory that can be a challenge.
4: Create character backstory without the clumsy info dump
It’s important to avoid the info dump or the sudden dropping of a block of information into the story in a way that brings it to a halt. In the drowning example used above, the protagonist can tearfully relate her own experience to the diving instructor who saves the drowning child. This comes across as a natural reveal.
There are other ways to integrate backstory into your main story. Here are a few tips and techniques for doing so.
- Use diaries, journals, newspaper clippings or other secondary sources to give the backstory. You can do this even if the backstory you are revealing is about your point of view character; your protagonist may be reluctant to think about this backstory consciously, but you can let the reader in on the secret.
- Dramatise the backstory. On occasion, a piece of backstory needs to be communicated to the reader as quickly and efficiently as possible, and in those cases, it’s best to ignore the “show, don’t tell” advice and just tell the readers what they need to know in a sentence or two. However, most of the time, backstory can be made more interesting by being dramatised. Whether this is done by flashback, dream sequence or dialogue in which one character describes an incident to another, be sure to keep the dramatisation as grounded and concrete as the rest of your story so that it is compelling for the reader.
- If you are dramatising the backstory, have a natural trigger in the story for it. Don’t just clumsily have a character start talking about her dead father or fear of public speaking resulting from a humiliating experience as a teenager. An incident or even a strong sensory impression like a smell or a song might bring back the recollection.
- Watch your language. If you are describing a flashback, write the first couple of sentences in past perfect tense to signal a shift to a more distant past for the reader. You can then settle back into past tense for the remainder of the flashback until you reach the end. At that point, past perfect can signal the end of the flashback.
5: Pace how you release backstory to keep the reader interested in your character’s origins
Reveal bits of backstory little by little. You can even use this technique to create stronger suspense for your reader as they wait to learn more about a character’s mysterious past.
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