How To Write A Great Backstory

How To Write A Great Backstory

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With so many important elements to consider in creating memorable characters, it’s easy to let the backstory fall to the wayside. However, a great backstory can be a powerful tool for developing unforgettable characters. When used well, a backstory can give readers insight into the character’s motives, fears, weaknesses, and quirks. What’s more, a good backstory can deepen the reader’s emotional connection to the character, and make a relationship between the character and the reader seem more real and natural.

Background is cool, but backstory is vital

When you’re giving your character a backstory, you’re thinking about the events that shaped their life experiences. You’re thinking about the people who raised them, the children who bullied them, the friends who stood by them, the enemies who betrayed them, and the tragedies that made them who they are today. If you skip this step when writing your novel or short story, you’ll have a hard time building a credible and engaging main character. Apply the same rigour to creating a backstory for your primary character too, and you’ll have the depth to bring all your cast to life.

Nobody is born fully formed. Even extraordinary talents had to start out as clumsy, fumbling, accident-prone, socially anxious children. Practically, this provides an excellent opportunity to show your character at their most vulnerable. What did they have in their life that they value? What did they lose? Also, your audience loves to build strong attachments to the main characters, especially the protagonists. If your audience can gain the understanding that your protagonist was once a wide-eyed kid who didn’t know hate from love, that will help them more readily sympathize with, or root for, the character.

Profile your character and find their flaws

The first element of writing a great backstory for a character is to create a profile of the kind of person you want writing about. Do you want an adventurous person, a family person, someone who fights for social justice? What is your character’s relationship to his or her family, job, religion, politics, and so on? Knowing as much as you can about the character will help you build a multi-dimensional background as you draft. The next stage is to find your character’s flaws. As a starting point, you should always try to fit the flaw into your story’s theme or motif. For example, if the theme of your story is the death of a son or daughter, you can have it that your character did not protect him or her. Another option is to find a flaw that’s only been introduced in the first act and delve into how it developed in the backstory.

Another way to delve into your character’s backstory is to think about the theme of your story and what you want it to convey. If you’d like to explore the notion that appearances can be deceiving, start planning the backstory with the character’s childhood. You can even create huge obstacles in your character’s history that culminate in a call to action in the present narrative. A war could have left your character without a family or without the ability to walk, for example. The decisions and actions the character takes in response to those events will deeply influence the person he or she is in the present day.

Identify their inner conflict

While some people are surprised that human beings are driven by more than simple motivations like pleasure and pain, every character is secretly driven by an internal conflict — and it’s up to you to bring that conflict to light. If you know what your character is struggling with, you can frame the rest of their backstory accordingly. Ask yourself how this conflict has affected the events of your character’s life up until now, and you’ll start to see how your character developed. Are they insecure? Or perhaps bitter or vengeful. Figuring out your character’s inner conflict will help you to flesh out their backstory.

Use two or three actions or events that show how your character has confronted their inner conflict throughout their life. For example, if your character struggles with self-esteem, their backstory could include an incident where they were ignored or made fun of by someone else, and then had to confront their internal reaction and determine how to react in the moment. Choose at least two different events for the current timeline in your book and two that happened earlier. Try to pair at least one negative incident with a positive one, so that the character’s morale isn’t entirely on one end of the spectrum. For ideas, you can use negative events from your own past, or see the full list of characters’ inner conflict below for possible ideas.

Know what is at stake for your character early on

One mistake that many authors make when writing a backstory is waiting until later in the story to reveal their characters. This is a critical mistake, because the reader isn’t going to be able to connect emotionally to the character unless they see that the character is fighting for something. The great thing about writing a backstory for a character is that, by definition, this person had to be motivated to overcome a set of trials and tribulations to reach their current position in life. Without that adversity, they wouldn’t be part of your story, now, would they?

Know what is at stake for your character right out of the gate. This is known as the inciting incident, as you are trying to show how the character became involved in a situation that had no way out without a major change in the character. Bring in your backstory only when it is absolutely critical that it happen. You want to exercise a light hand because you have some planning to do for the future of your story. For example, if you have a film and the character fall off the grid for large periods of time, you may want to have a backstory explaining what they have been doing during that time. It can also be a good way for you to set up a twist or reveal, where the character’s backstory becomes critical to the plot.

Give your character a reason to struggle

When creating a backstory for a character, it is important you take time to consider the present circumstances of your character. Often, the best way to do this is to determine what aspect of his or her life a character the most stressed about at this moment in the story. Once you know this, you need to find a way to connect this stressor to an aspect of the character’s backstory. The easiest way to do this is to ask yourself what sacrifices the character had to make in his or her past in order to prevent a situation similar to the one in the present time of the story. For example, if your character is battling alcoholism, then you can tell a kind of origin story that can go straight into present-day. If it is clear that your character is seeking forgiveness, then that is a good way to go into the past. Your goal is to, at some point, bring the story back to the character’s present struggles and show readers where that character came from.

When it comes down to creating a backstory with a purpose, always start with motivating events that happened to the character between the time of those big motivating events, and the present. First, working backwards chronologically, make sure that each event either provides additional motivation for present-day struggles, or prepares the character to better handle those struggles. Then, further back, tell the events in reverse order — the most recent motivating event, and then the motivating event that happened right before it — until you reach your character’s birth, which is not always needed. Also, if your character had any other relevant aspects of his or her backstory, such as being an only child, a sibling, or a unique blend of the two, be sure to cover those bases!

Focus on motivation

Every character’s reason for being is to serve the story. From the most minor and meaningless to the most central and important, no matter what decision they make, every character’s goal is to promote the plot in some way. If you want to write a great backstory for a character, you need to understand the character’s goals and motivations. Your backstory should show how the character learned to seek goals the way they do, and how they try to make decisions that are consistent with their background and their goals. The best way to focus on motivation is to stick to the main characters, rather than every side character. No matter who you’re writing about, turn on the plot-driving questions of your story — why does the character want to kill the villain? Survive and escape the apocalypse? Fall in love? If your character background doesn’t give satisfactory answers for these questions, your character will have a harder time moving the plot in a convincing way. Consider your multiple-protagonist book. Which questions apply most to each chapter, or to the character themselves? Although you want backstories to be more than just parades of gratuitous or offensive violence, they can’t be dismissed as irrelevant or cynical, either.

If you follow the previous tip closely enough, your chapter perspectives should relate loosely to your main character. As a general guiding principle in fiction, there is  nothing more compelling and engaging to a reader than another person going through a mirror reflection of the exact same events. This is why Rashomon  and other enigmatic multi-protagonist films are so engaging — they position the audience to relate to all of the protagonists in equal and experienced detail. As a general guideline when you’re considering your own characterization, start from the protagonist and move outward chronologically. Keep in mind later you might need to fill out some backstory, or avoid two-dimensional treatment of earlier life events which are likely to prove prominent later on.

Create long term goals and short term goals

Know where your character is and where he wants to be. What is driving his character arc? In a sense, every backstory should contain a character’s motivation—whether the motivation comes from short term concerns or long term hopes.

Creating both long term goals and short term goals for your lead and multiple side characters can help you develop the connections among your characters. Every character should also have his own unique, motivating factor for opposing or supporting your main character. 

Long term goals are the goals characters set for themselves during their journey. If they have strongly-held convictions or a greater calling to them, then they could be overarching goals—even calling it a “destiny.” 

Short term goals involve the story’s quest goals and plot, as well as the characters’ personal desires and the conflicts they face pursuing their goals. Look for opportunities in which to place your character’s short term goals and conflicts in the first 15% of your novel. Cater these short-term goals to your long term goals. Give the character time to navigate the first problem, or else you risk losing interest. It is also worthwhile to think about whether your character will undergo any changes that will alter their motivation, and whether there will be any other moments of epiphany, decision, or confirmation to move your character towards that turning point. This will keep up momentum and tension for your readers.

Allow character to grow organically

A major mistake writers often make when writing backstories is to try forcing the pace of the story on their characters. This results in unrealistic motivations, illogical actions, or even characters behaving out of character. Therefore, if a writer does not have a clear idea of their characters’ backstory when they begin writing the story, it is better to stop and begin planning. Another problem writers might run into when writing a backstory, is a limited sense of time. The actions of the character must be portrayed according to logic and believability. They need to be in continuity with all other events and mysteries from the main plot of the story. Readers won’t appreciate it when they feel cheated by an evil character suddenly becoming a noble man out of nowhere.

There have to be explanations for the character’s action and behavior in the current plot. The revelations in the backstory must be credible and they must also be the basis for the character’s motivations and the decisions he makes in the story. The backstory must logically fit, or make sense in the context of the story. The character’s actions, according to his internal philosophical structure can also be projected in the background. This way, the reader is able to know the character better than others. The backstory shows the limitations of the character, the imperfections and desires he faces. The backstory gives depth and humanity and lots of other things to the character.

Put hidden worldbuilding throughout your backstory

Even though readers won’t know it to look at it, your story has more going on than happens on the surface. Because of this, you should incorporate elements of the hidden world of your story. The best way to do this is by referring to them in your character’s past. For instance, if you’re writing a fantastical story, the main character shouldn’t just be a soldier — there should be hints that he’s actually a prince or a wizard in disguise. Another great way to populate your worldbuilding is through descriptions of items or technology that wouldn’t be right for the world you’ve set. Maybe that wizard is carrying an iPhone. Maybe that pistol-wielding Space Marine is wielding a lightsaber.

Factor the other characters’ backstories into your story too. Maybe the wizard has a relationship with the Space Marine. Perhaps the Princess falls in love with her bodyguard the moment she sees him. Their relationships are important to the narrative, even if they could never have met in the hidden world of your story. For that matter, what if subplots in your story are the catalysts for characters to meet in this different world? That meeting can only occur if you show some secret connection between the two characters.

Develop it as you learn more about your book.

Because you can’t anticipate every revelation you’ll find as you write, you should develop a flexible backstory that is malleable enough to be changed and developed throughout the process. This isn’t just a suggestion — it’s a requirement. Many writers find this difficult to do, perhaps because we often subscribe to a “save everything” approach — but the truth that you are working around is that you have more fun when you write by the seat of your pants. You want to hang on to your hard work — this makes it easier to know who your characters are and to imagine the world they’ll be moving through. You don’t need to know how everything will turn out, though that’s handy when it happens — you just want to be able to follow them on their journey.

However, if you try to write everything in your novels in advance, you’ll soon find yourself buried under an avalanche of documents that you will never be able to keep straight. This is one of the reasons that many writers develop their backstory into a summary for their characters. Not everything needs to be laid out, of course — you don’t want to consider everything — but enough so that you can see how all the characters’ pasts could relate to each other. Another reason that it’s important to develop a flexible backstory is that it allows you to include elements of the backstory in the storyline at just the right moments. Each writer can choose the ratio of-and-a-half in this, depending on how much they want the backstory to be in the foreground of the novel.

Explain too much and lose readers

A backstory has an obligation to the story of your book, just not one shared by an expository essay. A backstory is meant to give just the right insight into a character, in a way most appropriate to that character. If a writer gives too much backstory, or cuts it up into chunks separated by events in the plotline, it can give away just enough that it makes the character interesting. Readers already know that there is a ticking time bomb inside the character, or that their past abuse made them a bad marriage risk. They’ll then predict the scandal that shocks everyone, or the cave-in that causes the lover to be unfaithful. Your edit should prevent this problem by giving up only clues, without spelling out what’s to come. Point to a major mystery, but go light on the why or how. Don’t give away what prompted you to make the decisions you made for your character. If you do this, the backstory isn’t designed to change people’s behavior or disrupt the plot for your readers. To that extent, you’ve done your job.

It’s also very possible to be too subtle, giving such small reveals that readers and reviewers won’t even pick them up. Not everyone is reading from your perspective — if you spent time thinking up a piece of history you’re sure would make the perfect introduction for a a book, even if it belongs in the context of a seven-figure deal for nine novels, not everyone will think the way you do. How to keep this from happening? Tread the correct line between subtlety and timeliness in characterization. Comb your lines for anachronism traps, which may completely change the way your book series is parsed.

Maintain pace

The best thing about writing a backstory is in addition to helping develop your main character, it will drive your plot forward. It is important not to get too bogged down in events. Preserve the tempo over journeying through every minute of your character’s life. Divide the time your character has lived into periods dedicated to a certain life stage. If your character is continuously moving from one significant issue to another, the story would lose its flow. By doing this, you can foreshadow your character’s future without giving away the whole plot at once. It is important to give your readers little nuggets that they would not have guessed in the bigger picture.

Maintaining pace allows your reader to settle in. It could be kind of boring for them to read just how your character has ascended to humility and nationalism, without any relevance to what they are learning. The reader is trying to understand the present, so too much backstory could get boring. You must understand that the context of your story must already be set. If your character is born, and within twelve years has their first birthday club, best friend and warm cup of milk right before bed, it doesn’t make sense for the reader. Make sure that the backstory has context with the plot to let the reader understand the bigger picture.

Make all plot choices driven by character backstory

Perhaps the most important guideline when writing a backstory is trying to make all of your plot choices driven by character motivation. If your character wants a specific item, has a traumatic experience, or faces any other obstacle, choose your plot points based on their motivations. Why did they want the item in the first place? Why was this traumatic experience so traumatic to them? These decisions should always stem from the character’s backstory if the choices are to be believable and compelling.

Make sure it has details that make your character individually – and most importantly — relateable. Your audience isn’t going to like or care about a boring, flat character. Giving them details about who the character is, what they feel, and what their opinions on things are make them interesting and real. In other words, it makes them relatable. Just because this character in your story is a dragon goddess, it doesn’t mean the reader won’t be invested in her story if you give her a crippling caffeine addiction.

What you’re doing here is getting to the heart of your character—the one who loves pandas, has a sister named Molly, and gets nauseous after a couple of drinks too many. This is as much about you as it is about the character you’re creating. Writing a background that doesn’t feel like a cookie-cutter portrait means getting to know yourself a little more, and writing a more unique, authentic character, which is something you can then use as a blueprint to portray your character accurately in your story.

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