Read on for the essentials of the ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ of character backstory. Download our printable worksheets and join in on our character backstory building mini challenge.
What is character backstory?
Character backstory is a history of the events – particularly those relating to character development – that precede the narrative of the novel. For the purposes of this article we are focusing on the backstory of the protagonist, however, character backstory is just as important for your whole cast.
Why do we need it?
Depth and Consistency
A character’s backstory is an essential part of developing believable motivations and reasoning behind actions and reactions. It gives a character depth and consistency. With a well-thought through backstory you should be able to put your character in any scenario and know how they would react and why they are reacting in that way. Their actions and reactions are much more likely to be consistent across these different scenarios.
A consistent character doesn’t mean a predictable character, but it does mean one that the reader can get to know and understand as the book progesses. And as they do so, they begin to believe in them. They build a connection with them, which is, ultimately, what every writer hopes for.
Believable Character Arcs
For the writer, a well-formed backstory is key to building a convincing character arc. It leaves room for writing in many of the things that we love about our favourite characters. It could be a character with flaws who ultimately becomes good, a character who learns from his past and achieves his goals, or characters we root for because we empathise through our understanding of why they make the mistakes they do.
Stakes and Tension
If the reader knows something about a person’s past that will affect their chances of achieving what they set out to achieve, the stakes are important and believable. If we believe in what will happen if they don’t achieve what they set out to achieve, the tension increases. The higher and more believable the stakes, the higher the tension at every turn of the protagonist’s journey. Ultimately it is the tension that keeps the reader turning pages.
How should it be presented to the reader?
Write it out in full but allow it to develop
Write out character backstory in full for each character, but don’t, however, look upon this as rigid. As your plot develops, so too do the characters, and in ways you possibly hadn’t planned. Allow yourself the luxury of going back to backstory and making small changes and building on what you have as the characters develop. If you find yourself making big changes, it may be that you don’t yet have the character cemented in your own mind – in which case, this will be a very beneficial exercise for you to follow.
Keep it behind the scenes
A great deal of work goes into backstory – almost as much as the story itself, but it should be work that mostly remains behind the scenes. It isn’t something that should be written out in full in the novel. Use our character backstory builder worksheets to help you develop your character backstory. You can download them here.
Dripfeed it into the narrative
Backstory should be seamlessly woven throughout the novel whether through dialogue, internal narrative, implication through actions and reactions or flashbacks (used sparingly). In the same way we would make friends in real life we learn about a character’s backstory the more time we spend with them. We see how that backstory affects their present as we go through different situations with them. Dripfeed information on a need-to-know basis and only use information that will either develop our understanding of the character or move the story forward.
Practise with different scenarios
If you have a handle on your character you should be able to place them in any situation – no matter how far removed from the plot of your story, and know exactly how they would react and why. This is a great exercise to do once you have completed our character backstory builder worksheets.
Our most important advice is to enjoy writing and building your characters. You are going to be spending quite a while with them – not just on paper! More often than not we find that once they start to take on a life of their own, they accompany us everywhere.