How to Craft Compelling Character Backstories
Part of crafting characters involves exploring their history.
Just as your lived experiences have shaped the person you are today, a character’s backstory has the power to provide depth and understanding to their characterization. It can even lend context to the conflicts taking place in your present story. Without that history, your character’s attitudes and actions have little foundation on which to stand.
But crafting a rich and compelling character backstory is far from simple. What elements should you consider when weaving your character’s history? Better yet, how do you translate that history onto the page without bogging down your story? Let’s answer both of these questions and more in today’s article…
Understanding the vital importance of backstory…
Backstory consists of the series of past experiences that mark a character’s life, giving that character a sense of history. It can also deepen readers’ understanding of the character, highlighting the causes of their attitudes and beliefs, explaining their present-day actions and motivations, and lending context to the inner and outer conflicts in which they’re involved.
Crafting rich and compelling backstories can be a world of fun for some writers, but others find themselves overwhelmed by the amount of detail seemingly involved in crafting years’ worth of history. If you’re one such writer, have no fear. There’s no need to detail every last moment in your character’s history. Instead, here are ten key questions to ask about your character:
What circumstances defined my character’s upbringing and early adulthood?
How was my character raised to act and believe? Did they accept or rebel against their upbringing?
What three relationships, healthy or unhealthy, have had the biggest impact on my character?
What are three of my character’s happiest memories?
What are three of my character’s most upsetting memories?
When did my character first experience grief?
What memory(s) would my character most like to forget?
What memory(s) would my character most like to relive?
What lessons has my character learned from memorable events in their past?
In what way has each of these events impacted the person my character is when their story begins?
How to weave backstory into your narrative…
Backstory can be tricky to reveal on the page. If you share too little, your character may feel one-dimensional. If you share too much, you run the risk of boring readers or breaking up the pacing of a scene. And if you share without finesse, backstory can feel contrived, a sure hallmark of lazy or underdeveloped writing.
To seamlessly weave a character’s backstory into your narrative, consider the following tips:
Tip #1: Share backstory with purpose.
You may love knowing every last detail of your character’s history, but that doesn’t mean those details should show up on the page. Remember, readers didn’t pick up your book to consume your character’s biography. They’re looking for a story that feels immediate and engaging, and backstory is of the past.
When writing or revising, consider the purpose in any backstory you share. Does it fulfill one of the purposes we discussed above? If not, consider cutting that backstory from your manuscript. If readers no longer have the context they need to understand your story, you’ll know the backstory served a purpose.
Tip #2: Stagger backstory throughout your novel.
Readers don’t need to know everything about your characters by the end of the first chapter, or even in the first half of your book. To avoid bogging down your story with info-dumps, contrived explanations, and excessive flashbacks, reveal backstory only when it is natural or necessary to do so.
It’s okay if waiting to reveal backstory leaves readers with questions. Nothing turns pages like curiosity, after all. Just make sure to answer those questions before you reach The End.
Tip #3: Avoid info-dumping whenever possible.
An info-dump is any large block of information shared in a story. Because they disrupt the natural flow of a scene, info-dumps are often considered a sign of poor writing. The larger the block, the bigger the hurdle readers must overcome before they can return to the story at hand.
Even info-dumps designed to read as part of the narrative can prove disrupting. Backstory dumped via dialogue can feel contrived because people rarely monologue their own histories, while info-dumping in a character’s inner narrative can weigh your story down if the information is too detailed or lacks purpose.
Tip #4: Keep backstory brief.
Backstory is bygone information. Though it informs the present, it isn’t part of the present story. Relaying backstory in too much detail will almost certainly disrupt the pacing of a scene.
Even if you aren’t info-dumping, keep your backstory as trim as possible, sharing only the information readers need to know to better understand your characters and conflict.
How can you weave backstory into your novel?
You can use three main narrative elements to relay backstory: dialogue, inner dialogue, and flashbacks. When working with any of these elements, here are a few tips you’ll want to bear in mind:
Element #1: Dialogue
As your characters interact, they’re likely to share information about themselves, making dialogue a great place to relay backstory. However, it’s important that any dialogue you craft feels natural and remains true to your character’s voices.
Forcing dialogue as a cheap way to share information will always feel contrived: “Hey, Jim! Did you know I was once jilted at the altar? Let me tell you the story!”. Icky, right? Instead, consider your characters’ voices and craft a conversation that naturally allows for a bit of backstory. For example:
“Bob whistled. ‘You’ve got fair aim, girl. Who taught you to shoot so well? Your daddy?’
‘My mama,’ she replied with a smirk. Bob raised a curious brow. ‘Her daddy was a drunk, see, so she learned to fend for herself growing up. Said she’d been damned if any daughter of hers couldn’t do the same, daddy or no daddy.’”
In this example, I staged an action that prompted curiosity in one character (“Bob”), creating a prime opportunity to share a few simple lines of dialogue that reveal insights into our sharpshooter’s history.
Element #2: Inner dialogue
Inner dialogue consists of your point-of-view character’s intimate thoughts and experiences. If you’re writing in Deep Point-Of-View, a common technique used to immerse readers in modern novels, inner dialogue is nearly any part of your narrative that doesn’t include verbal dialogue or action.
Inner dialogue can be an effective way to share backstory because backstory is, in effect, memory. What better way to weave memory into a narrative than throughout a character’s thoughts? Take care to do so only when a scene presents the opportunity, and your backstory will flow seamlessly. For example:
“I set the rifle aside and grinned. My aim was true, and I knew mama would be proud. It was she who taught me, after all. I was no more than a sapling when she first set three tin cans atop the tree stump in our backyard in Virginia and showed me how to raise my rifle high. I moved to inspect my target, feeling hopeful about my chances in the upcoming competition.”
In this example, I used a quick line of backstory to explain why our character grinned after lowering their rifle. Returning just as quickly to the present narrative ensures the backstory doesn’t disrupt the pacing of my scene.
Element #3: Flashback
A flashback is a scene that breaks from the chronological timeline of a story to relay a past event. This may seem like a great way to share backstory. But as I explained in last week’s article, flashbacks often disrupt the pacing of a scene. If you’re going to use this method, craft your flashback with care, keeping it as in line with the present narrative as possible. For example:
“The butt of the rifle sat firm and sure in the crook of my shoulder, just as it first had all those years ago in the backwoods of Virginia.
‘There you are, sweet pea,’ mama said, readjusting the stock a little so it didn’t dig into my shoulder. ‘Heavy, ain’t it? You’ll have to practice often, get good and strong.’
‘But how do I shoot?’ I asked, enthusiasm spilling into impatience. Ever since I’d read that dime novel about Annie Oakley, I yearned to be the next great female sharpshooter.
Mama laughed. ‘You can’t shoot if you don’t know how to hold the thing, darlin’. Now, let’s adjust your grip. You’re like to twist the thing up like a pretzel if you clutch it any—’
‘Never seen you take so long to aim.’ Billy’s voice jolted me from my reverie. I swallowed, cursing my lack of focus. Thinking of mama had made my knuckles go white around the barrel of my gun. I clucked my tongue and did as mama said, adjusting my grip.”
In this example, I drew upon some of my advice from last week’s article, keeping the flashback brief, using triggers to pull readers in and out of the past, and ensuring the flashback had consequences in the present.
Crafting compelling backstories can add incredible depth to your characters, helping bring them to life on the page. But like so many elements of the craft, mastering backstory is no easy task.
As you begin exploring your characters’ histories, be patient with yourself. Consider the most impactful events in your characters’ pasts and work to weave them into your story when natural opportunities arise or when need demands. As always, practice makes perfect — as does studying how your favorite authors weave backstory into their own work.
Take time to study the craft and review effective examples, then get to work. It’s time to give your characters the rich and compelling histories they deserve.