Backstory. It’s the best tool you have to develop relatable, realistic, three-dimensional characters for your novel.
But, writing a backstory is easier said than done, and that’s why so many writers simply don’t do it.
Sketching out a backstory is not the sexiest part of writing a novel. Investigating motivations, creating genealogies, understanding the socio-political landscape of the world you’re creating— that’s pretty heavy stuff, especially since most of it won’t even make it into your novel.
So, what’s the point?
As we’ll discuss below, it’s all about crafting a realistic character, someone your audience will believe truly exists in the world that you’ve created. That’s no small feat, and it requires enormous backstory to pull off. But when you do, you’ll reward readers with a character driven story, not one that relies on cliched plot devices. That’s so much more satisfying.
I’m sure you have questions, so let’s discuss exactly what I mean by backstory, along with a few of my favorite tips for creating one.
What is a backstory?
A backstory is the history of the character. It addresses the following:
- Who the character is
- Why the character is the way he or she is
It’s an origin story, pure and simple.
The most comprehensive backstories start from the very beginning of the character’s life and ends the moment that your novel begins. It’s generally in chronological order, but not necessarily written in narrative form. It can be a collection of data, such as keystone events, names and dates.
1. The backstory doesn’t always need to be shared
Most backstories are just for your eyes only.
You can create a complex, rich, hauntingly beautiful backstory for your characters, but that doesn’t mean it should be in your novel.
Far too often, authors try to insert a compelling backstory into their novel. The result? It weighs down the story and slows pacing to a grinding halt.
It’s the literary equivalent to force-feeding your reader when he’s not hungry.
I know it’s hard, but resist the urge to add your backstory to your novel unless it’s something that the reader truly needs to know.
You reader probably doesn’t need to know the names of your character’s parents, or other mundane details— but you do. You need to know everything that the character knows. This is how you can write from the character’s point of view effectively. Otherwise, you’re phoning it in and writing from sketch, not from portrait.
Depending on the scope of your novel, it may be a good idea to inject some of your backstory into the main story. Notice I said “some.” You’re never going to give everything you know to the reader.
If you dump all of those facts without the benefit of context, it will overwhelm the reader and make it difficult for them to see the story.
It’s like the old conundrum, I can’t see the forest for the trees.
As the writer, you take all of the facts you know, carve them into a beautiful work of art, and make the moral of your story obvious. That’s what makes you the artist, and the editor an essential partner in the process.
2. Start with a present day character sketch
Even before you start writing, you already have a vague idea of who your character is currently.
Maybe he’s a crusty, old curmudgeon. Maybe she’s a optimistic, but naive, teenager.
No matter who your character is, start with what you know already and go back from there. Ask and answer the following questions to start crafting a solid backstory:
- What is this character’s biggest flaw? What’s the origin of this flaw?
- Where is the character from?
- Where are the character’s parents from? How did they come to have a child and under what circumstances? Was it a happy union or a chance encounter?
- What is the character afraid of? Trace the answer back to the character’s childhood and explain why.
- What makes the character happy? Trace the answer back to the character’s childhood and explain why.
- What does your character believe about himself and how did he come to this conclusion?
- What are his goals? Why does he have these goals?
3. Pinpoint a life changing moment
Everyone, your characters included, have select moments in their lives that completely alter their choices. These times are rarely announced with fanfare.
For example, it’s not the wedding day that changes your character’s life, it’s the moment five years earlier when your character meets her spouse-to-be in the line at Burger King.
Thanks to the 20/20 vision of hindsight, you can see how the character’s present day life was shaped by seemingly random encounters and events that took place years ago.
Remember that all of her previous choices take place in, and are a reaction to, her backstory. Those choices made her into the person your reader meets in your novel. How did her life’s experiences shape her into the current character?
4. Explore the gray
No character is completely good or completely bad. Resist the urge to paint any character as all evil or all angelic.
As I’ve said before, even a villain is the hero of his own story.
So, remove your black and white filters and look at the character as someone who exists in shades of gray. If he has experienced kindness along with pain, then your backstory should reflect that.
5. Use it as motivation
The backstory should always motivate the character, either positively or negatively.
The character either stands on what he knows and has experienced, or he’s running away from what he knows and has experienced. Either way, it can make a compelling plot for your novel.
Creating a backstory takes time and thought, but you’ll find that the quality of your writing will improve. Knowing your characters inside and out will make them more real to you and, as a result, more real to your readers. Happy writing!