As a writer, you may know everything that your characters has been through, where they come from, what dark secrets they carry – but for a good and believable story, you should not write the entire backstory, but rather make sure you use it in a smart way.
Definitions in this text
– Narrative: Where most of the story takes place. The present.
– Backstory: Things that happened before the story starts. Past tense.
– Flashback: Defined and detailed memories in the backstory that contain conflict and tension.
– Reflection: The protagonist remembers and reflects on things that has happened.
Why would we want to share a character’s backstory?
- To provide context.
- To teach the reader about relationships between characters.
- To understand different characters’ motivations.
- To increase suspense.
A good writer can weave the character’s background into the story through perspective. The way the character reacts to different events depends on what happened in the past. It can also motivate the character to want a certain thing and can also indicate what will happen in the future.
When writing about backstory, it is important to be selective. Why is that event important? How did it shape who the character is today?
5 tips for backstory
1. Find the right balance. Does the reader really need to know this?
2. Avoid info dumps. Too much information at once can make the story feel like a history lesson. We need to curate the information.*
3. Weave the backstory into the dialog in the present-day story. For example, use triggered memories. Remember that if you use dialog, at least one of the characters should not know what happened.
4. Avoid backstory, flashbacks or reflection in the first five pages. Why? To keep the tension high. A prologue should not contain an info dump but rather give the reader a taste of what is to come.
5. Think about your characters’ past, there are several ways to discover an interesting backstory.
*It’s okay to infodump when writing the first draft of a story so that you know what happened. Just don’t forget to edit it out later. Every time you depart from the current story timeline, the story slows down.
90% of the information about characters is hidden from the reader, just like an iceberg.Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory
Goals and motivations
- What does your protagonist want?
At the beginning of the story, your protagonist has a goal, something they want, but is struggling to get. If we know what the protagonist want, we know what will happen next.
- Why do they want it?
Multiple characters can want the same thing, but the why behind wanting it is important. It is what defines them. Their why is usually the result of something that happened in their past – an event that shaped them.
- What misconception leads the protagonist to believing they can’t get what they want?
It is usually something that happened in the past.
- What event shaped the protagonist’s misconception about themselves?
Identify formative events that are relevant to the story. For example, it could be a near-death experience or something embarrassing that gave the main character low self-esteem that holds them back later in life.