Backstories are a powerful writing tool because they intrigue and hook readers, making them invested 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.
I’ve used a few techniques for thinking up and writing backstories, including daydreaming, randomizing, and retrofitting. You can also manage backstory notes in a few ways, in separate files or a story management system.
Daydreaming is where I get many of the backstories for my major characters. I often think about my characters before I start writing about them. I might include them in half a dozen stories in my mind before solidifying my novel's focus or short story's focus. What doesn’t make the cut can become part of my character’s history. The “other stories” of my character get recorded on their notes sheet, which then turns into a timeline of their life along with a list of traits. See my Character Series for more info on this kind of character background.
You don’t have to dream up your character’s backstory before you start writing, though. Thinking through substantive events in your character’s history can happen at any time in the character creation and writing process.
I originally started randomizing characters while playing tabletop roleplaying games, and I needed to come up with a handful of non-player characters (NPCs). Still, I didn’t necessarily want to use up the mental space to dream up their whole lives.
There are lots of methods for randomizing backstories, including websites that can generate either elements of a backstory or entire character histories. You can also use character sheets from an established gaming system, such as Dungeons & Dragons or Vampire the Gathering. These sheets can help you flesh out your character’s personality, skills, and history.
Often, writers don’t know a character’s whole backstory or even most of the backstory when they begin writing them. Sometimes, characters “tell” me things about themselves as I write them. Occasionally, I’ll need to add something to a character’s history to make them mesh with the plot.
For example, maybe my ghost-hunting character Jennifer has to visit Texas and fly under the radar, so she’ll stay at her previously unmentioned sister’s house. At this point, the sister will need to become her own character, and I’ll need to develop her with a backstory that matches Jennifer’s. Or maybe I need to keep Jennifer out of Texas for a plot point, so I’ll add to her backstory that she’s not allowed in the state due to an old warrant.
Whenever I include a bit of backstory, I need to make sure it doesn’t contradict previous details or leave plot holes. Jennifer can’t have a sister in Texas if I previously mentioned that she’s an only child. Similarly, Jennifer wouldn’t have a warrant out for her if she was the sort of person who wouldn’t break the law. All of this brings me to my next point -
Backstory Notes Management
I need to remember the people in my character’s backstories and when and how the backstories of multiple characters converge. I also have to know how much of each character’s backstory I already have fleshed out. It’s essential to know more about my character and world than what I put in the story, but it’s useless if I forget the details, so notes are essential.
You may want a single document that keeps all your notes. I have a separate document for each of my main characters, which, aside from their backstories, also includes a bio, a stock image of what they look like, and a personality overview. I’ve heard of writers using notecards to store this info as well. There is also writing software and systems that can automate this information storage for you.
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