Every story that you have ever read, every movie that you have ever seen, has a potential backstory to it. Every last one. Now, maybe it’s a backstory that doesn’t need to be dwelled upon for that particular tale…but believe me, it’s there. And if you work to create characters that are compelling enough for your readers to want to know more about them…teasing them with bits and pieces of a backstory can add depth and complexity to your main character and the characters around them. IF it’s done right!
So this month…let’s talk backstories.
If the characters in your story have any importance at all in the plot, they might have an interesting backstory trailing behind them. They didn’t just appear out of thin air. Something brought them there. Something put these current events into motion. That’s what backstories attempt to explain. They reveal pieces of history that come before, and lead up to, the tale being told. It gives people a detailed idea about that character’s motivations, or reveals hidden secrets, or perhaps gives deeper meaning to certain personality traits that were previously unexplained.
Example…say you’re writing a story about some rough and rugged soldier type who is fighting his way through a warzone. You see him shooting and killing people and blowing stuff up, breaking necks with no remorse. Then he finds a little girl in the wreckage who just happens to be caught in the middle of this mess. Suddenly, this seemingly merciless soldier decides to take her out of the warzone himself and get her home safe and sound. Now….why did this happen? You could say, “Because he’s the good guy and they’re the bad guys and that’s what heroes do. They fight evil and save people. That’s a ‘functional’ storyline, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But you could potentially create a more involved meaning in the act itself by thinking of an interesting backstory to explain why he made the choices he did. Maybe the soldier has a daughter of his own at home, and he’s been trying desperately to finish his tour of duty so he can get back to her. Maybe his daughter was killed right in front of him and that’s why he became a soldier in the first place. Or perhaps, at some point in his history, the soldier accidentally killed a little girl himself, or at least couldn’t save her when she was in danger…so this has become his big chance to make amends for that mistake. There are a million possibilities as to why he felt the need to protect this little girl during such a hostile situation, and by giving a little bit of backstory on his character, you can give his motivations a bit of flair outside of “He’s just a nice guy.”
Readers get involved with characters that they can relate to and bond with. Someone they can get to know better as the story goes on. When you reach back into their past, it gives your audience an opportunity to know why your characters do what they do, and why they are who they are. Think about what drives them. What have they seen or experienced in their lives that made them the characters your readers have come to know and love? What made Darth Vader go to the dark side? What made Freddie Krueger want to hurt the children on Elm Street? What made the 40 year old virgin stay a virgin for so long? These are all backstory questions that can be used to build up your character and make them a little more well rounded around them.
If you’re writing a story about a boy who’s way too shy to start a relationship, don’t just leave it at, “He’s just a shy guy. Just because.” It’s simple and to the point, but that doesn’t add a whole lot of weight to him as a character. Maybe he’s insecure about himself because he’s in a brand new city and he’s a fish out of water there? Maybe he’s afraid of being gay, or he’s gotten his heart broken before, or he has an abusive parent at home? I mean, naturally, it doesn’t always have to be a tormented past, but a little something that gives them an added layer or two to their personality. I usually try to think of each of my characters as a complete and separate entity from everything else that’s going on. Even if they’re just side characters. I’m always thinking of how they grew up, who their friends might have been, what experiences they’ve had. Whatever story it is that I’m writing, it’s treated almost like a sequel to a backstory that was never written. That’s how I think of it. Each and every person that you read about had a whole life before the events of this story take place, and now they’re here to bring their knowledge and experience with them to take part in this one particular part of my story. The more interesting your characters are, even the ones who only show up briefly from time to time…the more interesting your story will be. Plain and simple.
Three things to remember about adding a bit of backstory to your characters…
1) Don’t be clumsy about it. Try to be subtle when it comes to adding information about your characters. If you have someone say, “Can you pass the salt and pepper?” And your character says, “They always passed salt and pepper in the orphanage where I grew up. That’s when I first realized that I could speak to dead people.” Well, hehehe….that’s going to come off as a little weird. Don’t force it. Sometimes, two characters find a quiet moment to bond with one another, and maybe trade a few stories about their lives while sitting by the fire. Sometimes a backstory can be told through a dream sequence or a flashback. However you choose to approach it, remember that it has to come off as a natural progression of your story. Don’t try too hard to wedge a bunch of expositional dialogue where it doesn’t belong. It’ll sound forced. And your readers can tell.
2) Make the background information you’re giving useful. Remember, the whole purpose of a backstory is to ADD to the tale you’re trying to tell. If it’s not important information, or if it doesn’t add to the plot or your character, then maybe a backstory isn’t really needed for your project. Whatever it is that you’re revealing about your character’s history, it should have a definitive impact on the rest of your story. If you’re telling a backstory where somebody’s puppy was struck by lightning and died because of it…then don’t mention it again or have it be relevant to some current or future event…then it doesn’t need to be there. That doesn’t make any sense. Words wasted. However, if your main character is hiding out in a storm somewhere…and decides to take a supreme risk to run out in the rain and save a dog that he saw soaking wet and walking around in the street? THEN there’s a connection. “Hey, I know from experience what can happen to lost puppies in a violent storm like this.” His past experience has a direct effect on his current motivation. So don’t do one side without thinking about how you’re going to balance out the other.
3) Adjust the length of your backstory according to the character’s importance. If your main character just so happens to be a cyborg with an explosive device in his chest cavity…that’s going to require quite a bit of explanation. That’s a perfect place to add a lengthy backstory. (Delivered a little bit at a time throughout your story. Not all at once.) Your main character is the biggest and most important part of your story. Go wild. However, if he needs to go to a bar somewhere, and he has a history with the bartender that displays a former friendship and it allows him to get some hidden information from him in that one scene…a huge backstory isn’t needed for the bartender. A few sentences to establish that they know one another and that he can be trusted will suffice. No need to go overboard with details unless they’re going to play a major part in the chapters to come. Figure out each character’s effect on the main storyline, and adjust your backstory ideas accordingly.
So there you have it! If you ever feel like your characters are falling a little flat, or if readers can’t really understand them and their motives…try adding in a few brief scenes of backstory to explain. It can do wonders to clear up a ‘muddy’ picture. Even mysterious characters benefit from a bit of a reveal every now and again. Try it out. You might like it!
This has been Comsie Talks! And happy writing!