Backstory: What Is It?

Now that our characters have irreconcilable conflict, it’s time to support how they got that way with backstory.

WHAT’S BACKSTORY?

The masters provide tons of definitions of “backstory.”  Here’s a sampling:

“The backstory is everything that took place before you started page 1,” says Jack M. Bickham.

“Backstory refers to any essential information about the characters that happens before your novel begins,” says James Scott Bell.

“Backstory,” says Larry Brooks, is “All that happened in the character’s life before the story begins that conspires to make him who he is now.”

“Back Story,” says Mary Buckham and Diana Love, is “Information on a character that gives the reader insights and motivation for why this particular character acts or reacts as they do, based on a past event or events.”

“Backstory illuminates the origins of behaviors and motives, especially those tied into the main conflict,” says Jessica Page Morrell.

“Backstory,” says Gary Provost is “something about the character’s past that is going to affect the way he behaves in the present and will intrude upon and change his system,” that is, his approach to life.

Backstory, says Dwight Swain “can be summed up as ‘reasons why’: Reasons why a character does the things he does. Reasons why he doesn’t do others.”

And finally, John Truby says, “I rarely use the term ‘backstory’ because it is too broad to be useful. The audience is not interested in everything that has happened to the hero. They are interested in the essentials. That’s why the term ‘ghost’ is much better.”

HOW TO COME UP WITH BACKSTORY

“The objective of this exercise [creating the characters’ backstory],” says Mr. Brooks, “is to create a linkage between their actions within the story and the psychological roots that fueled it.”

Lisa Cron agrees:  “The goal is to pinpoint two things: the event in his past that knocked his worldview out of alignment, triggering the internal issue that keeps him from achieving his goal”–we’ll get to that in more detail next week–“and the inception of his desire for the goal itself.  Sometimes they’re one and the same.”

“Before you begin to build a backstory,” says Rachel Ballon, “You must open yourself up for your characters by answering questions not only about your characters, but also about yourself. After all, how can you give to your characters what you can’t give to yourself.”

Julie Gray agrees.  “Take a few minutes to write your own origin story in five hundred words or less.  Now think about your main character (or your antagonist, that’s fun too) and explore what his or her origin story is. What defined your character on page negative fifty, long before your page one was written?”

“Ask questions,” says Mr. Swain.  “Does anything about this character’s body have a bearing on his feeling, his thinking, his behavior, within the story framework?  How about his environment? His experience? His ideas?”

Nancy Kress suggests we “start by listing what your characters want. Make an actual, brief list if that helps.”  Then ask, Why does he want those things?

Look for secrets.  Look for guilt.  Look for trauma.  Look for delirious happiness.

Mr. Truby says to look for the “open wound that is often the source of the hero’s psychological and moral weakness.”

Karl Iglesias agrees. He says to look for “a specific trauma from his past that still haunts the character in the present story, often contributing to the inner need and the character’s arc…. Basically, any traumatic incident that created a sense of loss, or a psychological emotional wound.”

HOW MUCH BACKSTORY DO YOU NEED?

“Here’s the secret,” says Ms. Cron, “you are looking only for information that pertains to the story you’re telling.”

“A novel with too little backstory can be thin and is likely to be confusing,” says Ms. Morrell. “By the same token, a novel with too much backstory can lack suspense.”

“A character’s past, like everything else in fiction, is a matter of selection,” says Ms. Kress. “You choose the parts you think we need to know in order to understand who this person is today.”

How much backstory you need depends on how much explanation is needed to support why a character wants what he wants and acts as he does.  What his reasons are.

“What’s known as the ‘principle of parsimony’ applies,” says Mr. Swain.  “That is, the simpler you can keep said reasons, the better.”

HOW TO DELIVER BACKSTORY WHILE WRITING THE FRONT STORY

With backstory, less is more.

“Give only the amount of setup or backstory that’s absolutely necessary, and not a word more,” says Les Edgerton.

Ms. Morrell agrees.  “The trick is to delay telling backstory until the last possible moment or include only tidbits that matter and stir unease or questions in the reader.”

Mr. Bell, however, takes another view:  “There are those who advocate no backstory in the opening chapters, but I think that goes a little too far. Backstory can help us bond with a Lead character, our most important task in those first pages.  So the rule is, don’t put in too much or none at all.  What you do put in, marble in with the action.”

A couple masters note that in real life, we get to know a person’s past as we get to know them in the present.  The same should go for our characters.

“Past information gets revealed as relationships become more personal and intimacy levels increase,” says Ms. Ballon. “In essence, as you make friends or enemies, people learn more about your backstory, just as they learn about your character’s backstory through his relationships.”

“When you are introduced to strangers at a party, do you want to hear about their past if you haven’t gotten interested in what they’re like in the present?” asks Rick Roerden.  “Once readers become invested in the main character’s problem, you can insinuate backstory via one or two sentences. You don’t want to satisfy reader curiosity–you want to increase it. Several chapters later, after your readers are committed to finding out what happens next, you can offer a paragraph or two of backstory. Be selective.”

On the other hand, Ms. Cron says a character’s backstory “may not even be mentioned at all, its presence merely implied by his actions. So although the reader doesn’t see it, they feel its effect, because you, the writer, understood it so clearly that you were able to weave it through everything the protagonist does.”

But don’t worry about “too much backstory” in a first draft.  You can always tighten it up later.  Mr. Roerden gives us a plan for how to do that:

“Highlight all passages of backstory and background in your first three chapters [or more]; then be selective and slice what’s not-essential. Dice what’s left into small, manageable bits.  Splice those bits in with the dialogue, action, exposition, and description only where needed for readers to understand what is happening at that time.”

And while you’re revising, “Look for ways to encapsulate a lengthy history into just a few telling words,” says Mr. Edgerton.

“When you reveal some of the character’s backstory, you have the opportunity to do more than explain,” says Mr. Bell. “You can create a sense of ongoing conflict within the character, with the past as a form of opposition.  Do not simply slip us information and details. Pack those details with a sense of menace for the character in the present moment.”

FUN WAYS TO USE BACKSTORY

To Support Irreconcilable Conflict
Backstory tells us how our conflicted characters became that way and can make their idiosyncrasies more believable… and more compelling.

To Raise the Stakes.
Comparing and contrasting elements of backstory can highlight and deepen why it is so important for the character to achieve his story goal.  For example, this contrast is seen most often when the main character loses an important relationship.  The character recalls memories of the relationship to illustrate how that relationship elevated the character’s life and to show why getting the relationship back is so important or, if the partner is dead, why the loss is so painful.

To Reveal Motivations.
“A protagonist is a person with a burning desire, and backstory reveals where this desire stems from,” says Ms. Morrell.  “It can be helpful to keep a Post-It note near your computer that briefly states your protagonist’s desire [story goal]…. Use your character’s desire as your North Star, and then ask yourself how you’ve proven this desire through backstory.”

To Express Innermost Fears.
“But putting what [the character] loves most in jeopardy, fears are put into play. By validating those fears through backstory, you also raise the stakes,” says Ms. Morrell.  “In most stories, backstory explains the main conflict between the antagonist and protagonist, especially if they have met before…. As you begin to express your protagonist’s fears through backstory, be sure you have a clear understanding of exactly what those fears are. It can be helpful to create another Post-It that articulates your protagonist’s fears.”

To Reveal Obstacles.
“Conflict stems from the obstacles, large and small, placed in each scene, blocking or stalling the protagonist’s progress and desires,” says Ms. Morrell.  “Placing obstacles that stem from your protagonist’s backstory ups the ante, because these obstacles will push the protagonist’s buttons.”

To Create Turning Points.
According to Robert McKee, “Powerful revelations come from the backstory–previous significant events in the lives of the characters that the writer can reveal at critical moments to create Turning Points.”  For example, Luke, I am your father.

CAUTIONS

As Paula Munier says, backstory “slows down the story–and you don’t want to slow down the story.”

Backstory delivery techniques that tend to slow down the story include:

The Info Dump: stopping the front story to tell the reader, through exposition, about something that happened back in the day.

The (Ineffectively Used) Flashback: stopping the front story to show a scene of something that happened back in the day, complete with action and dialogue.

Well that’s it for me.  What about you?  What insights do you have into making the most of backstory?  Tell us in the comments!

UP NEXT, ON WEDNESDAY

We’ll look at how some masters use backstory.

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