backstory characters Apr 21, 2021

Some authors really go overboard with writing and sharing backstories for their characters. It’s important to understand the purpose of creating backstory, and the separate reasons for sharing it. After all, it’s a necessary part of understanding your characters well enough to write them but that doesn’t mean your readers need to see it.

Here are some instances where backstory can take up too much space on the page:

  • It’s the only way the writer knows how to tell us about the history of a character – to take a deep and unnecessary dive into a past event or even a character’s entire life pre-story
  • Too many characters’ histories are revealed, diminishing their effect
  • The backstory feels like a justification for the character’s actions, not a snapshot of who they are
  • The reader senses emotional manipulation – that you want them to feel a certain way about a character rather than just revealing them through their words and actions

I will be frank when I say that at times, Hanya Yanagihara’s outstanding novel A Little Life sometimes veered into TMI (or TMBtoo much backstory) for me. It was certainly important to know the brutal history that Jude had survived in his youth, in order to understand the level of devotion and protection that his college friends wound up creating around him. But the harrowing details sometimes felt like torture porn. A Little Life is one of the best books I’ve ever read, but it’s exceedingly long and painstaking and often overwrought in trauma. Definitely not a book for the faint of heart! But judging by the number of awards this novel won, perhaps all that backstory was required. Maybe the reader needed to go through a little taste of literary torture, in order to empathize with fragile Jude’s plight.

Other instances of too-much-backstory would include tales where the backstory is fully delivered as flashback. Flashbacks and backstories are different, although it’s easy to get the two confused!

Backstory is history created in order to understand a character (their personality, motivations, conflicts, etc.) It is not written for the reader, but for the author. It allows the author to intimately know their characters, and then to write them effectively. Some of backstory will show up in the form of flashbacks or asides within the context of the story, but only the most relevant parts.

Flashbacks are jumps backward in time, designed for the reader to understand what is happening. It’s a literal jump within the context of the story, to an important event from the past. It’s a remembrance of something specific that happened to one or more of your characters, which will connect to something currently happening or about to happen in your story.

A backstory is written for the eyes of the author only. The author will then use that material to develop the character’s journey, interspersing this information throughout the story in order to help our readers know who they are. Some of the backstory that is retained will be shared during flashbacks, although not necessarily all.

Writers in our program will understand the use of Flashbacks and the amount of Backstory material to include when they begin working on their scenes, in just a few weeks. A flashback is a scene, or at least a scene-within-a-scene, which will contain some backstory about a character or a place or a group of people.

In Alex Garland’s novel The Beach, protagonist Richard is described as being obsessed with movies about the Vietnam War – enough that he has traveled to Asia and is staying in a seedy hotel and desperately wants to experience some kind of adventure that will prove his mettle.  Lacking real combat, he stumbles eagerly into the kind of escapade he has only dreamt about.

Garland doesn’t write a whole scene about Richard’s teen years spent watching Full Metal Jacket and Platoon and Apocalypse Now. He doesn’t create an entire flashback of teenage Richard, moping around the house, munching on Fritos and watching war movies while his sister flirts with the landscaper and his father writes a dissertation on South African economics. We learn little about Richard’s history except that he’s spent most of his time playing video games and dreaming of partaking in something akin to real action. Readers don’t have to slog through some long, winded, overblown chapter about Richard’s misspent youth. But clearly, Garland wrote a backstory for his main character, and he knows Richard well enough to convey him on the page, and for readers to have a sense of who this guy is and just how over-his-head he’s gonna be when he discovers the Beach.

Now, at this stage of The Write Stuff, you don’t have to worry too much about how much backstory gets left on the page – that’s a task for later in our program, during the early editing process. For now, focus on creating meaningful backstories, origin stories and explanations for what happened in your characters’ pasts without worry about how much to keep and what to shred. And for now, don’t worry about where their backstories (what remains that is) show up. You’ll dive into that while creating your Scene Studies.

It’s always helpful to start with your protagonist – to understand who they are and why they want what they do. This feeds into the primary Conflict of the story, and then the Tension.

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