Last week I blogged about scattering smidgens of backstory throughout a story. I received an email from a reader who wanted further explanation about what backstory is. Not being a writer, she’d never heard the term.
I love it when that happens, and I can pontificate.
The simple answer: Like reunions where we connect with our past and our present, backstory connects the story world and our character’s past.
Writers understand what I mean. Readers still might need more explaining.
According to David Morrell, NYT bestselling author of high action thrillers, all stories have two parts: backstory and front story.
Front story covers the scenes on the page that are happening in the present and pressing forward.
Backstory reflects the influences from the past, and a character’s past is the key to creating a story where motivation and stakes are credible.
NOTE to any aspiring writers: You should have Morrell’s The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons about Writing and Publishing on your craft bookshelf. Check it out here.
Now back to my explanation…
Backstory is made up of all the data of a character’s history. How he became who he is, and why he acts as he does and thinks as he thinks. It also reveals influences of an era, family history, and world events (such as wars) that affect the story and its inhabitants.
Factors writers consider as they create characters include:
- Major childhood influences, traumas, events, and emotional wounds
- Family birth order
- Era and/or historical period/events that influenced him
- Significant people in a character’s circle. If dead, how did he relate?
USA bestselling author Pat Kay teaches that once a writer defines those factors, the next step in character development is to ask questions like theseto dig deeper.
- Who was the most significant person in his childhood?
- Which past relationship most influenced him?
- How did his last relationship end?
- Is his occupation what his parents or family hoped he would pursue?
- What happened in his past that will affect the plot?
- What regrets does a character have?
- What is his worst fear?
- What is the darkest secret or shame from his past?
- Which events from the past still influence him?
- What emotions will a character feel/display/hide when under pressure?
- What is a character’s central strength?
- What does a character want to change about himself?
- What are a character’s long-range goals?
- What one thing will a character NOT do?
I could go on and on with questions to ask about a character, but you get the picture. If you look at yourself and others in your family and think of their background, you will see that everyone is influenced by past experiences and way of life.
Same is true of a story character. Writers employ various techniques to know their characters deeply. The more fully developed a character’s past the more three-dimensional characters appear on the page.
Make sense, readers?
Writers, what techniques do you use to fashion your story’s characters?
I enjoyed readingg your post
In The Pendant’s Promise, the backstory of both Lily and Alex has formed them into the people they are today. Without knowing their past, I would not have understood why they reacted to the present the way they did. I love how you fed that in without losing the forward action of the story.