No character was born the moment the book starts – just like humans, characters have history: joy and sorrow, happiness and sadness, good times and bad times. The sum of our experiences make us what WE are and, ultimately, determine the choices we make. Characters are exactly the same. Backstory makes characters “breathe” – to come alive. Without backstory, there is no character.
Backstory is also about motivation. In the movie Up, Carl is broken-hearted because his wife has died. He decides to fulfill the dream they had of traveling to Paradise Falls but runs into multiple problems along the way. His motivation, whatever the obstacles he faces, never changes. He is doing everything for Ellie. Without that knowledge, we may not have any sympathy for the character because he's pretty hard to get along with. But, since we know WHY, we are happy for him when he realizes what's really important in his life and does what's necessary to achieve it. Backstory is essential in most fiction written today. A reader wants to be involved with a character, wants to laugh and cry and cheer as the character goes through their adventure. It's the motivation for what a character does what they do. We need it to understand.
Why is backstory such a problem? Because many writers use it incorrectly.
The positive side of backstory is that it creates curiosity in the reader by providing necessary information and giving clues as to our character's history. It also delivers both character and plot development by showing motivation. WHY is the character doing what he or she does? Writers also use backstory to deepen internal conflict and increase tension by upping the stakes. We SHOW who our character is by body language, dialogue, actions, and thoughts, but the backstory is WHY they act the way they do.
Backstory slows the action to a crawl, takes away the mystery, and can be downright boring if it's in the wrong place or there's too much of it. I love a particular mystery writer but, all too often, she stops the action completely to explain something that happened in the past, which is usually when I take a break from reading the story. And, I may not pick the book up again. Another way writers misuse backstory is when they tell us too much at the beginning of a story. How much does the reader need to know? Does it have to be told in backstory? It's much more interesting to SHOW the character's personality through what they do, rather than to TELL us.
So how do we properly and creatively incorporate backstory?
Note: Backstory and flashbacks are very similar but usually a flashback is told with an action scene (although it's in the past, it happens in actual time in the story), and backstory is usually a memory, told in a multitude of ways, of something that happened before the story began. Think action (flashback) as compared to memory explained to someone else (backstory), although that's not always the case. Not confusing at all!
How do you handle backstory? Do you like to read it, or would you rather the author start in media res (in the middle of the action)?
Sarah (Sally) Hamer is eternally fascinated by people and how they ‘tick’ and works hard to incorporate individual idiosyncrasies to create living, breathing characters in her many works of fiction. She writes in many genres – mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction – and has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.
A teacher of beginning and advanced creative fiction writing and screenwriting at Louisiana State University – S for over ten years, she also is a book coach, with many of her students and critique partners becoming successful, award-winning authors.
© 2023 Margie Lawson, all rights reserved.