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Developing Character Backstory

Here’s a little secret --- your story doesn’t begin on page one. Books should only tell a portion of a character’s story. Unless your protagonist is born on the first page, they lived before chapter one. Unless they die in the end, they will continue living on. At least, that’s what it should feel like. It’s easy to sometimes write as if the character was just born. We as the author feel like we need to fill in every single detail about their life and world, as if it was just created. As the story proceeds, we build all the relationships and twists, but seldom do they pull on things from the past --- from before the book began.

Creating a rich backstory can create incredible character depth. Imagine randomly selecting someone from the world you have never met before. Even though you just broke into their life and world, does that mean they just started existing? Of course not! They have a history --- one that shapes their life, and one that will continue to shape their future. By spending time with them, you can actually be a part of their future, but in order to learn about their past, you have to discover it, a little at a time. This is the same exact way we should view our protagonist. We are dropping into a moment in their life and watching their journey going forward, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a past.


So creating good backstory is important. But how do we actually go about accomplishing that? There are different facets of backstory --- relationships, events, and personality being three of them.


With people relationships, you want to illustrate how two people interact with each other given their prior history. For example, in my novel WHAT LIES ABOVE, Eva has a very complex relationship with her mother Julia. Although she loves her mother, she has grown up spending very little time with her, because Julia is always working. In order to communicate this to the reader, I didn’t just explain this concept on page one. I added little bits and pieces --- little hints --- as they became relevant. Julia is not there when Eva gets home, and she still hasn’t come back by the time Eva goes to sleep. I used this as an opportunity for internalization.


The second facet of backstory is events. Like I mentioned earlier, your protagonist has grown up --- has lived --- before page one. Therefore, they have experienced things. What events have shaped where your MC is now? The answer to this can be found by asking more questions… cause-and-effect questions:

Does chapter one find your MC on the run? What made them flee? Are they an orphan? What happened to their parents?


Last we have personality. When you begin chapter one of any book, you are introduced to the protagonist. As the story progresses, you begin to get a feel for their personality traits --- whether they are selfish, bitter, kind, vengeful, weak. Of course, no character is cut and dry, black and white. They are a combination of many different traits. My point, though, is that we must find out these traits as the story develops.

Where do these personality traits come from?

Here is where backstory comes in. Events and relationships in their past will shape how they act now. What makes them bent on revenge? Why can they not turn away from an orphan? What moment or moments in their past shaped them to be this way?


Once you begin asking yourself cause-and-effect questions like I did above, a complex backstory will become to form. The golden question is… how do we then incorporate that backstory into our novel?

The answer is not “a prologue”! Prologues sometimes work, but you will hear many agents and publishers talk about how they dislike prologues since they don’t cut right to the action. In fact, prologues are often shunned for the exact reason that they explain backstory.

You don’t want to divulge your entire world’s history all at once. This is called an info-dump, and it is a killer both to the pacing and intrigue of your book. Readers want to be sucked into the action, and remain sucked in throughout the book. This requires balance and good pacing. And nothing kills good pacing faster than a ginormous paragraph of description.

The trick is to add bits and pieces as they become relevant to the story. Drop a line or two into a scene between characters, reminiscing on some event in the past which has shaped their relationship. It is even okay to have a flashback, if it directly relates to the scene. I talked more about this in a recent guest post, so go check it out for more tips!

Let’s chat! What are your thoughts on developing and incorporating backstory?

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