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Backstory: Know, Don't Tell!

Copyright © 2012 by Deborah M. Hale

When a character first walks onstage in your story, this will be the first chance for your reader to meet him or her. But if you want the reader to be intrigued by the character and curious to learn more about them, your character needs to have a rich past life, known as backstory .

Who were his parents and what sort of relationships did he have with them? Are they still alive? If so, how do they fit into his present life? If not, when and how did they die and how did that affect your character? Particularly, how did it affect the character's problem, which I discussed in another article What's Your Problem? A heroine with a strict or abusive father may develop rebellion or trust issues. One who idolized her Dad might have trouble finding a man who measures up. How might it affect your hero if his father deserted the family? What if he was judgemental or cheated on the hero's mother?

What about siblings? Was your heroine an only child who always longed for brothers and sisters? Was your hero a responsible, protective older brother? A middle child who tried to make peace or clowned to get attention? The baby of the family with a rebellious streak? Perhaps he was a twin with some of the special rewards and challenges that relationship presents. In each case, consider how these relationships affected or contributed to the character's problem.

Were there any other significant people in your character's past life who helped to shape her? A grandparent, teacher, neighbour, friend, cousin, coach? You don't have to dig up everyone she ever met, just a key few, maybe only one who had a significant impact on his development.

As important as the people in your character's past are the events that made an indelible impression upon him. Did people die or desert him? Was he ever bullied or cheated of his due? Did he ever get in trouble with the law? Did his family's fortunes change for better or worse? Did he move frequently, endure war or a natural disaster? Perhaps ideas like this just come to you as the character is born in your imagination or perhaps you have to consciously construct a past for him. If you're having trouble, ask yourself what sort of significant event or events might have formed the root of your character's problem.

Are you wondering why all this backstory stuff matters? You aren't writing a biography, after all. Who cares what happened to your heroine when she was twelve years old or that she was raised by a single mother? It's the current story readers want, not a bunch of stuff that happened long ago. That is partly true. Most readers don't want to get so buried in the character's past that it distracts from the current story. But sprinkled in judiciously, backstory can greatly enrich your narrative. How, you ask?

Solving the Mystery

Readers love having their curiosity roused and gradually sated. But unless you're writing romantic suspense, there may be few elements of mystery in your story other than how will your hero and heroine get together and what made these people the way they are ? Let your reader peel back the layers, glimpsing bits of your character's past and what makes him tick. Chances are they'll want to learn more. That will keep them reading deeper and deeper into your story until they can't put it down.

Something to Talk About

As your readers get to know your characters, so your characters will be getting acquainted with each other. People embarking on a new relationship want to discover all they can about the person they're attracted to and confide about their own past. Characters who only care about the next kiss or how hot the other one looks won't appear to have a strong emotional foundation for the happy future that will also take place off stage. If you've done your backstory homework, your hero and heroine will have plenty to say to one another when they begin to confide.

Laying the Motivation Foundation

It has been said that readers will believe anything characters do in your story as long as they are properly motivated. Motivation is the fuel that powers your heroine's drive to accomplish her goal, which in turn powers your story. The strongest motivations spring from early life experiences. If your heroine was born poor and had to struggle for every dollar, readers will understand and sympathize with her for working punishing hours and being reluctant to jeopardize a lucrative promotion by getting involved with an attractive colleague. That is especially true if you gradually strip away her high-powered ice-princess façade to reveal the insecure little girl from the wrong side of the tracks who often went to bed hungry.

A Little Goes a Long Way

Sometimes in our rush to snag the reader's sympathy for our characters, authors make the mistake of thinking we need to reveal a great deal of our character's history within the first few pages of our story. That's known as a backstory dump and it is justly frowned upon because it can stop the reader in her tracks before the story gains any momentum. It's better to save your backstory for later, once the reader is properly hooked on the current action. Try to dole out information a miserly fragment at a time until a full, clear picture emerges quite late in the story. If you feel a character might come off too unsympathetic in the beginning, drop a telling little thought or action that hints there is much more to this character than meets the eye.

In my novel Wanted: Mail-Order Mistress, Simon Grimshaw is introduced as tough businessman, but when Bethan Conway is lost in a dangerous part of Singapore, I slipped in a hint about his past. Simon was tempted to let the hussy face the consequences of her scandalous behaviour. But he could not bear to have another woman's death on his conscience.

I didn't say who the woman was or why Simon felt responsible for her death. All that would come later. But I was making my readers a subtle promise that if they kept on reading, they would find out.

Beneath the Surface

Just because you've done all this delving into your character's past, don't feel obliged to use it all. Think of it like the historical research I do for my books. I generally use no more than ten percent of it in my story and often much less than that. But that other ninety percent is not wasted effort. It will infuse and enrich your knowledge of your character so that you have an intimate sense of what she would say or do in almost any situation. You're much less likely to have her take some action that would be out of character.

Sometimes there may be things about a character that only the author knows and will never be revealed in the story. One famous instance of that is the sexual orientation of Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series. If JK Rowling had not outed her character, it would have remained a matter of individual reader conjecture. But rereading the series with that knowledge adds a whole new perspective to Dumbledore that is perfectly consistent with the way in which the character was written.

A Real Boy

In Carlo Collodi's famous fairy tale, the little puppet Pinocchio can walk, talk and act on his own, yet he does not become the real boy he longs to be until the power of love completes that profound transformation. Likewise our fictional characters are only words on a page or screen until they become real to readers. How many of us feel closer to Anne Shirley, Elizabeth Bennett or Jamie Fraser that we do to many of the living, breathing people in our lives? Properly employed, backstory can be a powerful element of the magic that makes your fictional characters take on a life of their own for your readers.



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