Character backstory is important to your story. It gives your story context, texture, and helps your readers relate to your protagonist. But learning how to write good backstory, discern between good and bad backstory, and only embed pertinent character backstory isn’t something that’s always easy.
Telling a character’s backstory can be used to show the “why” behind what your character does. It helps your readers understand why they react the way they do, so, yes, it’s very important to learn how to write backstory that won’t simply pad your word count.
It’s fairly reasonable to say your characters lived before the start of the story. After all, their life isn’t a dead zone until the first page. That’s why backstory is so important to crafting complex and believable characters.
Remember, it isn’t something you have to add during the first draft.
While you can embed character backstory if you know it, emphasizing finishing the first draft is what you should be focusing on. Every step of the writing process is difficult, especially when you’re navigating through the waters for the first time.
My advice is that, at least for the first draft, that you nix the necessity to add backstory, unless you’ve already flushed out your characters and know who they are and why they turned out that way.
Adding in the beginning often causes you to add too much, or at least much more than is necessary. Writing the first draft first allows you to really get to know your characters within their journey, and helps you better access what backstory you truly need to add.
That first draft isn’t your final draft. Learning how to write a book takes many drafts, or many months and years of engaging with the craft. It isn’t something picked up on overnight.
How to Embed Character Backstory into Your Story: Hold back the details.
Most writers can create fantastical backstories for their readers, but good storytellers hold every detail back until the most opportune moment in the story to share. This is a good way to avoid adding superfluous tidbits of information, and a great way to reveal who your characters truly are to your reader.
Holding details back isn’t doing your readers a disservice but giving them a four-page info dump certainly is, when you could have embedded your character backstory into other, more relevant parts of their journey.
“Rushing the backstory is a terrible waste,” says Garth Stein, a New York Times bestselling author of The Art of Racing in the Rain and winner of two PNBA Book Awards—and he’s completely right.
Think of character backstory like a game of hide and seek, your avenue for building tension within the reader. Let your readers anticipate and predict future action, which keeps them engaged with the narrative and immersed in your protagonist’s journey.
Let your reader connect the dots and define who the protagonist is with the information you’ve given them via strategically embedded character backstory.
Having a healthy balance of active storytelling and backstory is something many people struggle with, especially newer writers who haven’t yet discerned what is necessary and what is needless information. There’s the “now”, which is the urgency of plot, and the “then”, which is how your character got to now. The “then” is the backstory, usually embedded within action, dialogue, and character introspection.
If you’re struggling with determining what is necessary backstory and what isn’t, or if you simple have too much, try highlighting your chapters one by one. At first, use two colors: one color for the “now” and one color for the “then”. What’s the balance like? Is there too much “then” and hardly any “now”?
Next, add a third color and read through your chapter again. Of the “then”, highlight anything pertinent to the scene at hand. Highlight anything that furthers the narrative of the scene, not just fluff, which only serves to pad your word count. Once you’ve highlighted using these three colors, you should be able to unarguably discern what is good backstory and what can be cut.
Word of Caution: Don’t give the reader too much backstory.
One of the most common mistakes I notice on aspiring authors manuscripts is that they include too much backstory within the first few pages. The first chapter is when you’re introducing your protagonist, and sometimes a few other main characters.
Adding backstory is like interrupting someone during an awards ceremony: “Hold on, I’m gonna let you finish, but first…”
Oftentimes, there is already more than enough for the reader to process without adding paragraph upon paragraph of extraneous backstory. Adding anymore than what’s relevant to the scene causes an “info dump” effect. It might feel good to write in the moment, but all it means is a whole of word cutting during the revisions phase.
There’s very little your readers won’t learn throughout your protagonist’s journey that they don’t need to know.
You should boil the opening chapter(s) into what the reader needs to know at that moment. It isn’t important to include every detail until it’s relevant to the story or active plot point. Stick to adding little tidbits, until after you’ve introduced the main characters.
With that cautionary tale in mind, adding character backstory is just another important step in story craft. When I’m writing the first draft, I focus on the journey and character development. I navigate their Desire, Lie and Truth. That’s it. Everything else is focused on in later revisions.
Learning to write your character’s backstory and embedding character backstory into your story is almost a different kind of art. It isn’t as easy as writing a few sentences on paper. It’s meticulous, calculated, and strategic. And at the end of the day, you only have a few pages—sometimes, a few sentences—to hook a reader. They have the entire book to get to know your characters.