How to Write Character Backstory

Character backstory is—and I can’t stress this enough—an important part of exceptional storytelling. Without backstory, your readers have little to no context about why your characters are the way you’ve written them.

Readers have no idea who they are before the story starts, which is why writing character backstory is important to creating complex and engaging characters.

Character Backstory: Character Snapshot

Your character snapshot is the bare-bones outline of your character. It doesn’t even go into details about looks and attitude. It’s just about the desires that drive the plot, the character’s name, and the character’s role in the story.

Your protagonist is driven by both internal and external catalysts. There’s always something happening around them, and there are always emotions that follow. Because of this, you should create goals, motivations, and conflicts that resonate outside and inside of your character.

With these inner and outer goals, motivations and conflicts, you can derive your basic character arc, creating their beginning, middle and end resolution. These key points are important to know before you sit down to write your book; everything else can be added or changed later.

When the writing bug hits you, sometimes you don’t want to sit around while you fill out your character profile. And you shouldn’t have to wait if you don’t want to. It’s your story, after all! But, if you do want to iron out the finer details before diving straight in, check out the two key things about creating character backstory.

Character Backgrounds: Start with Present Day

You can’t create backstory when no one exists right now, so starting with a distinct character from the start sets the foundation you can later build upon. No matter who your character is, or who they become, you should start with what you know now.

Using that starting point, you can go back and add tidbits about your character throughout the story. A few key things to consider are:

  • What does your character look like?
  • How does your character act?
  • Where does your character live?
  • What does your character believe about the world?
  • What is your character’s greatest desire?
  • What is their biggest flaw?

Character Backgrounds: Add in Backstory

With these key things, you can start building a solid foundation of who your character has become, and with these things in mind, you can start your story.

But do these six questions really tell the whole story about who your character is? Not by a long shot.

Other questions you should answer while you’re working through your first draft are:

  • Outline their family relationships, with siblings, parents, and grandparents;
  • Add stories of memories and trauma from earlier in life;
  • Include intellectual achievements and shortcomings;
  • Personal opinions and sensitivities;
  • Past relationships, first-kiss stories, friendships, and promiscuities.

But you shouldn’t stress about needing to know everything when you start writing your book. Your manuscript will go through many, many revisions before you settle on the “final draft”.

There will be plenty of time to add backstory and get to know your characters on a more intimate level, than what you might glean from the first draft. The first draft is about getting your story out, everything else can come in the subsequent drafts as you’re wracking your brain to get it just the way you want it.

For better or worse, we are accumulations of everything that has happened in our lives. That’s why having adequate character backstory is a must for building multi-dimensional characters.

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