Saturday, April 2, 2016

B is for Backstory

The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting.
—Stephen King

Once upon a time, I spent copious amounts of time creating back stories for the characters in the novel I was working on. I suspect this was more a form of procrastination seeing as the novel never really got past the first six chapters. Every time I created a new character I'd have to stop and do a character sketch with a detailed back story.

When I finally realized I was spending more time creating back stories than creating the actual story, I stopped. And then I kind of abandoned the book because pretty much all I had was back story, most of which wasn't pertinent to the plot.

It's a fine line between too much and too little when it comes to back story. While you, as the author, need to know everything there is to know about your characters, how much does your reader really need to know? Too much and they'll be bored; too little and they'll be confused.

I did, many years later, revisit that early novel and the back stories came in very handy. They let me get inside my characters' heads so I knew how they'd react in a given situation and made them seem more alive.

Back story can be used to strengthen the reader's bond with your character. It can increase suspense if your reader knows about a trauma your character has suffered in the past that can affect what's happening now. Sometimes back story is needed simply to explain why the character feels so strongly about what they're doing.

In my novel, I used a prologue to share a few important details from all those back stories and more were shown through the thoughts and actions of my characters. The rest appeared through reminiscence and flashback but in total it was only the tip of the iceberg as far as my pages of back story went.

By all means create as much back story as you wish, just be careful how much you actually share with your reader. They neither need nor want to know everything about your characters. Share your facts sparingly, and spread them out. No one likes an info dump, but everyone loves a mystery.


Megan Morgan said...

I see we're tackling the same subject today, in very different ways! I agree, it's good to know a lot about your characters before you get started, but it's also easy to overdo it. Some of the best things I've learned about my characters have come through the story itself. Sometimes they manage to surprise me!

Great post!

Laura said...

Such wisdom and common sense. I haven't been subjected to too many boo with too much backstory, but it isn't fun. I start skipping paragraphs and pages and once that habit starts with a book, it tends to continue.
I'm blogging over at

Natasha Duncan-Drake said...

Ah, the joy of creating back story - if can be such a rabbit hole can't it :) Good advice on using it.
These days I tend to jump straight in to writing and create the back story as I go along. I figure if I need it to tell the story it will come to me :) Sometimes this works, sometimes not ;) One thing I have learned, however, always write it down for reference as soon as it is used.
Tasha's Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)

Pat Hatt said...

It is good to have some, but too much can really bog you and the story down indeed.

AJ Lauer said...

That's very sound advice! It can be super fun to work on characters' backstories, but we mustn't let that prevent us from writing their now-stories!

Happy B Day!
~AJ Lauer, an A-Z Co-host
Twitter: @ayjaylauer

A Tarkabarka Hölgy said...

Making characters for role-playing games taught me a lot about writing backstories, and using them later on for plot points...

@TarkabarkaHolgy from
The Multicolored Diary

Pat Garcia said...

I have to admit that I create lots of backstory about my characters that I usually eliminate during the revision process.
Patricia @ EverythingMustChange

Strayer said...

Nice to meet you, from the A to Z blogging challenge. We all have back stories, I suppose. Communication is difficult sometimes because of our back stories.

Stephanie Faris said...

An agent a while back wrote a post on how he HATED prologues and, since reading that, I've noticed there aren't many. It seems to be a lost art. I used to write romances, though, and they were very popular in those. It could be that I write middle grade and chapter books now and I guess you never see them in children's books anymore, oddly!

Jo said...

Not being a writer but a reader, I guess this information is really not for me.


Amy Morris-Jones said...

That Stephen King quote is such a good one! It's a fine art deciding how best to incorporate a character's history. These are useful tips!