Backstories are a powerful writing tool because they intrigue and hook readers, investing them in a world or character with quick glimpses of history or motivations. However, there must be a balance; too much backstory threatens to drown out the current action. Too little backstory can leave the characters wooden or unsympathetic. So, I’ve created this series on how to write backstories to help us bring just enough of what is hidden onto the page.
What is a Backstory?
A backstory is the personal history of a character. It can also be the history of a location in your setting, like the history of an inn or spaceship, or the history of your entire setting, as in the continent or world where the action occurs. Even items can have backstories, especially magic items and artifacts.
As authors, we should have more of this backstory in our minds or notes than what makes it into the work. Revelation of the backstory should be pertinent to the current situation. As I’ve stated before, when discussing characters, too much backstory is no longer a backstory; it’s just the story.
Dusty – A Case Study in Backstory
Dusty, the Space Pirate, is afraid of tight spaces. During a raid, he gets stuck in a shipping container with Sophie and reveals to her that, as a child, he was trapped for two days in a collapsed mining tunnel. This is a formative piece of Dusty’s life and perhaps the reason he chose his vocation – all that open ocean. Dusty’s backstory will only get revealed at a time and place that makes sense for it to surface, in this case, when he’s in a similar situation. We also don’t want to dwell too much on the collapsed mining tunnel story. Dusty and Sophie are stuck in a shipping container, and their priority, along with the readers’ attention, is in the present.
Connecting the Dots
But most importantly, now that we know this about Dusty, we care about him a little more. If I don’t know a character, how can I care about them? Dialogue helps reveal inner thoughts, and action helps place them in the story, but personal history offers an understanding. Pieces of history humanize a character who is otherwise rooted in the present action of the story.
Backstories also set the tone for the novel and the character. We can make Dusty somber and dramatic by adding that he was the only family member to survive the mine collapse. Or we could make it humorous - maybe Dusty had to shimmy out of the mine, which destroys his clothes and leaves him hilariously compromised. In either case, poor Dusty.
There are two main issues with backstories, and they are on opposite ends of the spectrum. First, there can be no backstory because the author didn’t think of one. On the other hand, some authors leave too much of the backstory in our minds. Both situations make a confusing and unmoored world with one-dimensional characters. There’s a third issue, which is too much backstory in your story. That issue is more straightforward to remedy than the first two; edit it down or plan a long novel (or set of novels). Throughout this series, we’ll discuss techniques for when and how to reveal your backstories.