If you’ve been writing (or reading) for any length of time, chances are you’ll have come across the term ‘backstory.’
If you’re new to the term, basically it means ‘a history or background created for a fictional character.’
Backstory is one of those things that can get writers and readers pretty riled up, and for good reason. While it’s essential, backstory has the power to stop a good story in its tracks and cause monumental problems for a reader.
To understand why, let’s take a look at the concept of backstory from both a reader’s and a writer’s perspective:
Backstory for the reader
Why it’s important:
Without a solid and legitimate backstory, characters can become a bore. As in life, we are a product of our experiences and so it is in the fictional world. When characters say and do things in a book, readers must understand why, and backstory is a big part of this.
Why it’s a pain:
It slows the story down. Plain and simple. If a reader is subjected to paragraph after paragraph of backstory, chances are they’ll tune out and may even get frustrated and put the book down.
If the backstory stretches to pages and pages, you may lose them as a reader forever. It’s like being trapped in the corner with Great Aunt Wilma who is regaling you with stories of her childhood. It usually includes long diatribes about people you’ve never met (mostly likely because they’re dead), and by the end of it you’ll be diving for the drinks table or already thinking of ways to avoid the next family event altogether.
Backstory for the writer
Why it’s important:
Backstory plays a huge part in what motivates your characters. Maybe a negative childhood experience prevents them from forming meaningful attachments an an adult. Maybe their last boyfriend was the douche of the century and your heroine has become a ball-kicking feminist intent on creating an all-female society. Either way, you get the point. Backstory matters.
Why it’s a pain:
The hard part for writers is often in letting go of their tight grip on a character’s backstory. Most writers spend hours upon hours developing those backstories. They might have detailed character profiles of which a considerable part of this is about the backstory.
The key word here is ‘back.’ It happened before. It’s not happening in the book you’re writing right now.
Just because you’ve spent hours upon hours working on this backstory does not mean it needs to be included in its entirety in your actual story.
Tips for including backstory in your writing:
- Avoid large numbers of paragraphs or pages at one time detailing your character’s backstory
- Avoid ‘telling’ your backstory. Usually there’s another way of including your backstory that’s more active. It might be the way a character reacts to a situation in a particular scene, or dialogue is often a good method too. Let your characters share their story verbally rather than writing large chunks of narrative.
- Pretend you’re in the kitchen cooking. Stay with me here. Backstory should be added sparingly, like a sprinkle of salt or pepper when it’s required to add flavour to the story. Too much flour or sugar and the recipe is going to go wrong.
- Remember, backstory can add tension and help drive your plot. If you tell readers everything up front there’s no reason to keep turning the pages. Pepper the backstory throughout to add intrigue and interest.
- Be gentle with yourself. Including backstory effectively takes practice. The more you write the better you’ll become.
Top tips to avoid boring backstory
If you remember nothing else, aim for backstory to be relevant, timely and active.
I also find beta-readers can be tremendously helpful in highlighting overdone backstory, provided they offer honest and constructive feedback. You can read more about the important qualities of a good beta-reader here.
Do you find writing backstory challenging?