L is for Life experience (aka, how to tackle backstory)

Every character – from those in the starring role(s) to the lowly alien with a brief appearance on page fifty-six of book three – has dreams and aspirations. As in real life, our life experience (backstory) contributes towards the person we are today, and the same holds true for characters. Who they are now, and where they want to be, depends on their life experience, dreams, and aspirations. These are the elements that drive a character forward, that dictate their choices and behaviour.  Some characters will achieve their goals, others won’t be so lucky, or they may find that their motivation or goals change as they progress through the tangled layers of plot.

Character arcs show this progression. Some will have a positive arc, and go from a bad place to a good one, while others will journey along the negative arc, starting in a good place and ending up in a bad one. Finally, there is the static arc, where the place they began is the place they end, regardless of what a story throws at them.

Life experience is what defines our characters. Their backstory may or may not be crucial to the current plot, but it should go some way to explaining why a character behaves the way he does.

  • Will he jump into a fist fight and save his best mate from getting battered or run for help?
  • Will she be the first to sign up for the call for heroines on the next grand quest, or add her name only when bullied into doing so?
  • Why does she feel claustrophobic in space but quite happy to go potholing?
  • Why does he stammer every time he has to talk at a formal engagement, but regale a tavern with tall tales through the night?

The author should know the answers to these questions, even if the reader doesn’t – yet. Part of the joy of reading is discovering why characters behave the way they do and then speculating about how they are going to tackle the problems facing them now (and no, the reader doesn’t want to sit through five pages of backstory every few chapters explaining it in detail – that’s cheating).

In my opinion, the backstory is better served in bite-sized portions. A little snippet here and there can go a long way to explaining a character’s motives, but if overdone, it can read like a biography, especially when the author loses focus and brings all the relatives into it, or offers a flashback within a flashback within a flashback (and no, that wasn’t a typo).

To put this into context, the female who is bullied into putting her name forward for the grand quest may, at a first glance, seem like a coward, especially when every other female of age is putting their name forward. Then, a short snippet of backstory informs us that she is new to this town (unless you’ve already covered that part) and lost her three sisters on the last grand quest. She, alone, knows it has nothing to do with ‘honour’, but something far more sinister.

As your story progresses, however, you may find that you need to inform the reader in more detail – a paragraph or two, perhaps even a page might be needed to explain how this woman survived the grand quest while her sisters didn’t. If your reader is invested in your characters and the problems they face, they will (possibly) reach a point where they are, in fact, eager to learn more and do in fact become more tolerant of backstory. I’m not saying my way is the right way, and it will change from story to story, but from my personal reading experience, books with masses of backstory at the start of the book rarely survive the ‘delete’ option on my Kindle (usually by the end of the first chapter), whereas books where I’ve got to know the characters first, I tend to devour backstory without actually realising it.

Tips for writing the backstory

I would actively encourage you to write out a character’s backstory as part of the planning process. This will allow you to get a feel for ‘who’ they are as a person. I wouldn’t go as far as to do a whole bio on them, although some authors do. However much detail you want to go into, keep it to the side, and only put the details pertinent to your story into the story.

The backstory isn’t restricted to exposition. It can be told through:

  • Dialogue
  • A flashback
  • A feeling
  • A thought
  • A reaction to an object or situation
  • Media reporting
  • An overheard conversation
  • anything else you can think of that I might have missed

A note about dialogue:

Be careful not to introduce an ‘as you know, Bob…’ statement. Keep in mind who knows what. You wouldn’t have one character reminding another that they have claustrophobia because they got shut in a cupboard as a child – the claustrophobic character would be well aware of that fact. However, the claustrophobic character might break down and tell the character trying to convince them there is nothing to fear from deep, dark holes in the ground what happened to them as a child, thus informing the reader of the facts behind the fear.

Withholding backstory, rather than revealing it in advance, can allow for surprises along the way, so pick and choose when and how to reveal that crucial piece of information.

Story element backstory

This post has focused on backstory in regards to a character’s life experience, but there is another aspect to this – backstory relating to elements of the plot, such as the history of a political system, a futuristic technology, or the workings of a specific form of magic.

The techniques described above will work for non-character backstory too. It’s very much of case deciding what to say, when to say it, and how much to tell the reader at any given time.