Holding Back Your Backstory

By Michael - 4 minute read

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Authors call the hidden part of a character’s life their “backstory.” When I was acting in plays, directors might ask me to decide what my character was doing before the scene began. Since my character is supposed to be a real human being, he has a life outside of what appears on the stage or on the page. Every character is like an iceberg – there is more to the character than appears on the surface. If it’s a minor character, the reader may never learn much about what is under the surface. But even if you don’t write about it, it still has to exist. A 25-year-old woman, by definition, has 25 years of life experience. Unless she was raised by wolves, she was raised by people, even if your story never mentions it. Everything she does, she does for a reason, unless she is mentally ill, and even then, as they say, there is reason in her madness.

Keep the backstory in the background. A backstory is your tool to help you create your story, not a creation in itself. Your reader may never see it directly. Part of the editing job is to prune away references to the backstory that don’t advance your story. Doing that may be painful if you think you have a darling backstory, but, as you know, writers have to kill their darlings. If your backstory is as fascinating as you think, use it to write a prequel.

Backstory is for characters, not for writers. Details add life, but don’t spend time coming up with old details for the sake of details. Decide what events and experiences could have made your characters into the people they became. But just because your character wants to say something, that doesn’t mean your reader needs to hear it.

Understatement increases interest. A five-page backstory digression about a father who worked in psychological operations during the war will probably become more interesting as you make it shorter. The shorter you make it, the more you leave to your reader’s imagination and the more interesting it will be come.

Don’t front-load your backstory. You may call it a prologue, but most prologues are not necessary. Instead, use the basic editing approach of cutting as much as possible from the beginning without confusing your reader. You’ll likely discover that you can begin your story at an exciting point, “in media res” (Latin for “in the midst of things”), without having to explain everything first. Your story needs to catch your reader’s interest immediately. Adding a long introduction before the interesting part is about as effective as adding a long explanation before telling a joke. Nobody will laugh.

You can add backstory as needed. Writing is more like sculpting with clay than with marble. If you find you need something, you can slap it on later. For example, once a mystery writer decides who committed the crime, she can go back and develop a backstory that explains why. She can reveal that on the night the plans were stolen by an unknown spy, the sweet kindergarten teacher was in the next room. But she can also hint that the teacher learned to sing “The Internationale” as a child when her intellectual parents invited other immigrants over to discuss politics.

Don’t info-dump. Yes, maybe you absolutely have to tell your reader something so they can understand what’s happening. But how you share backstory elements is as important as what you share, if not more so. Share them naturally. Don’t abuse characters, such as maids and butlers, by having them talk about information they already know. Spread out your revelations over several pages or chapters. The principle “Show, don’t tell” applies here. So does the principle of subtlety. You’re creating an experience, not simply communicating facts.

You don’t need to flash back for a backstory. Flashbacks can be confusing and overused, along with other sudden changes in time and setting. You want your reader to always be wanting more, and how can they be curious about something if you’ve already told them all about? Instead of telling your backstory as another little story, intersperse it into your main story. You can say, “At the Anhui Palace, she tried the Honeycomb Tofu, but it was much sweeter than her mother made it,” instead of, “Her mother had immigrated from the Chinese province of Anhui.”

Sometimes writers think their backstory is story. It’s common: as your mind works out your tale, it spins out both story and backstory, and both may end up on your page. Identify when your real story takes place: what is the conflict? When does it come to a head? Look at references to the past, and see if your story still works if you remove some of them – if you begin your story later. Does your second chapter work as your first chapter? Then maybe you should remove your first chapter, call it backstory, and interweave its contents, revelations and hints into the rest of your book.

Avoid world-builder’s disease. Because J.R.R. Tolkien’s high fantasy novels are more imitated than any others in the genre, his imitators might feel they need to copy his backstories as well. But the creator of The Lord of the Rings, who was a professor of philology and Old English, apparently enjoyed creating backstories more than creating the novels themselves. Otherwise, he could have published even more novels. If you want to publish more novels, you need to spend more time writing novels than creating the backstory for them. Because of Tolkien’s popularity, his son was able to get these backstories published, but don’t count on doing that yourself.

James Michener was known, even teased, for his heavily-researched historical novels that sometimes retold the geological formation of the places where they were set. But in an interview with Voice of America, he said, “Now if you look at the best books of the research writers, they’re as good as anything anybody else did. But the bulk of the best books, I think, come from people who just sit at a desk and write. And if I were starting over again, knowing that I had the ability that I did have, I might well go that route.”

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1 Response to “Holding Back Your Backstory”

  • Rose

    “Everything she does, she does for a reason, unless she is mentally ill, and even then, as they say, there is reason in her madness.”

    Look, I understand the point here, but as a bipolar woman who has been both refused and manipulated into treatment due to this idea, this sentence made me audibly exclaim “Ew.” Not even psychosis is completely reasonless — pretty much all the science we have says that psychotic beliefs grow out of very logical thought patterns that the brain erroneously assigns too much importance to. Especially when you’re writing about characterization, which is a realm where mentally ill people tend to be unfairly demonized, it’s extremely disrespectful. Mentally ill people don’t do certain things “because we’re just crazy.” We do certain things because our brains follow trails of logic that function differently from the logic trails of people who aren’t mentally ill.

    The information in this post is extremely helpful for many writers, and it’s great that you’re providing this information. However, it would be even better if you’d think more about whether you’re unintentionally demonizing huge swaths of people when you provide tips.

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