Character Backstory – Important Or Not?

by Neeks

Of late I’ve been reviewing my short stories and have come to realize that my characters have very little background. That’s fine in a short story, because of the format some things are necessarily left out. I realized that if I ever want to expand my work and grow any that my characters will have to as well.

What’s the first thing you usually do with a new friend? You talk to them, get to know them, their likes and dislikes, how many kids, born where? Really? I’m from here, and moved here. Your brother works where? … And so on. We are sharing and learning each other’s backstory. Learning this history enables us to find common ground – which in turn allows us to empathize and relate to each other. You had the same mean teacher as I did, so you know how I feel about her. That’s the key isn‘t it, the you know how I feel words. I have to remind myself of this when creating characters that I want others to read and get to know.

We must understand that believable characters have to have “real” lives. Superman didn’t just show up one day all ready to jump tall buildings, no. We had to first learn how he was from another planet, how his adopted family raised him, where his powers came from, etc. Likewise our readers didn’t just wink into existence this instant when they turned that Kindle on. They had to get up and shower first, go to work, get money, buy the Kindle, download books – then and only then could they read what we’ve written.

Why is your character afraid of dogs? Why does he/she stop to give food to the homeless man? Backstory answers these questions and often provides motivation for your character while advancing the plot. In order to create real-sounding characters we need to give them lives. A character may have slammed the door on the way to work everyday which woke the neighbor’s dog. The dog then barked and growled ferociously, waking the child in the apartment next to it (your character) and giving them an ingrained fear of dogs.

Perhaps he/she brings a coffee and sandwich to the homeless man on the steps of the bank every morning. Maybe they feel for the hungry people because their mom had them work in a soup kitchen every Thursday while growing up so that they would learn the value of giving.

Perhaps the person poisons the food and gives it to the homeless person because of some deep-rooted psychosis.  Maybe this is just a self-centered character that detests anyone he considers beneath him.  People have flaws as well as assets and our characters have to show that as well.

Bottom line? I think to make them more believable, I’m going to have to practice at giving my characters more backstory and more history.

How about you, do you think characters need that backstory or not? How much is enough?

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24 Comments to “Character Backstory – Important Or Not?”

  1. I’m working on characters in preparation for NaNoWriMo at the moment and I’m trying to make their back stories as detailed as possible. I’ve tried to just do it on the fly before but it didn’t turn out well and ended in me being seriously confused.

    • I have tried before to create characters and do some outlining for nano but was completely unsuccessful. I couldn’t see the characters at all. Once I started writing, their characteristics, likes, dislikes, etc. just came to me. All in all I’d much rather be able to plot it out in advance! Good for you in preparing!

    • PS – Hi Rosie! 😉 Hope you’re enjoying the site! B xo

  2. This post caught my attention. Though any remark was appreciated as a feedback, and critique, one of the most painful remarks [on several of my many past rejections] was “need character development.” As you mentioned also, much of this too referred to my short story submissions in the 1990s. The writing into the story of the “back story” is tricky. When and where does one feed the bits and snippets in? I am reading a new novel, “The Vesuvius Isotope,” a first person narration, which uses past flashbacks in italics interspersed in chapters as the story progresses. I’ve not written that way, but it does work. Though not using italics, I have written a novel as a flashback story, with alternating present and flashback chapters, then at two thirds of way, the past meets present and then presses on to conclusion. The italics flashback is not exactly a new approach. Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” uses those italics flashbacks interspersed in almost fifty percent of that twenty eight page short story. More often in recent writings, including TV and screenplays, back story is played out in conversations between characters. It is always a good study and demands some creativity. I still struggle with it.

    • I do as well Tim, they say “needs character development” but they never say what. Do I need more history? More physical description? More quirks,likes or dislikes? More deep thoughts?
      Thank you for stopping by today and I’m glad that we caught your attention. Good luck with your characters!

  3. Great post Neeks! You’re right about the short story element, I think that’s one reason why I quite like them, you don’t have to go into quite so much detail with them! I think we do need some background though otherwise the characters can feel really flat!

    Looking forward to the discussion on this post!

    B xo

  4. When the first sentence lays down, I’ve no idea what the character is like. What follows is as much discovery for me as it is for any potential reader. I learn how she sees the world and her place in it, what things got her there. Characters tell me who they are. Cassie, coming in novel 2, is a don’t get in my face basketball player. When someone intentionally takes her down, on the next play they get a basketball in the face. Her personality is quite different from the protagonist in the first novel, and it’s fun using the novel to explain why.

    • Nelle your characters are always so vivid and real, you certainly have excellent character development. I’m like you, discover my characters as events unfold. Thanks for commenting, as always it’s good to hear from you 🙂

  5. I agree, some not-in-your-face backstory helps explain the character(s) in many ways and stops him or her from becoming f.l.a.t.

    • Hehehe, I like that Tess, f.l.a.t. I have heard some folks find a picture of a person in a magazine or online and clip it out to use as a likeness of sorts for their characters. I’m not even able to get that far, I never see my characters that fully. I feel them, but can’t really see them. I really need to work on this, lol.

  6. Great post! I watched Batman: The Dark Knight yesterday for the first time while I was getting a root canal. One of the few things I recall from the movie was the Joker’s description of his father and how he held a knife to his son’s (the Joker) face and asked “why so serious?” This, after he had cut up the boy’s mother. The red painted smile on the Joker’s face covers and highlights the scars. Interesting backstory, eh? You can feel at least some sort of empathy for the evil character given what his life must have been like growing up.

    I think the more you know about your character, the better. As Hemingway noted, it doesn’t have to be written on the page. It just has to inform what’s written on the page.

    Some writers do all that work in the beginning, while others do it like Nelle’s post through a process of discovery. For the novel I’m writing for NaNoWriMo, I’m doing a lot of up front character work so I can take off on day 1.

  7. I do some character development, but, prior to starting on the story, it is quite minimal. Taking your example, Neeks, I could be thinking about what in the character’s past experience led to them to give food (or give poisoned food!) but why would I if it doesn’t impact upon the story? So, for me, the plotting is all.

    It may be that there is one big character issue that drives the plot (there was a very good, VERY SWEARY Chuck Wendig article on that this week at http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2013/10/28/plot-and-character/ ) so there has to be some back story to set the character off on her journey, but I don’t feel the need to pre-analyse all of her foibles and psychoses (there is time to do that as the story progresses…)

    For Example:

    Our heroine is hanging from a dirigible, 2000 feet above the burning ruins of Washington DC Stop! What is her back story? It depends on where I want the story to go.

    1) As a child she was on the gymnastics team, loved rope work, but she grew and was hounded off of the team for not being ‘petite enough’ that led her to take up rock climbing and so…

    Or

    2) Goaded by her brother our heroine climbed that gnarled old tree in the back yard, she had become stuck, frightened to go up or down, and her brother had run off to play with friends. Hours later, when her parents had got her down, she vowed never to go up high again…

    Which back story serves the plot? Which sends it off into a more interesting place? Which allows the best twist in the plot? etc. etc. So, dependent upon that, then I flesh out the back story.

    Hope this ramble makes sense!

    • It does Dennis, and um, do you give classes on this stuff? ‘Cause I would attend in a heartbeat. Thank you for these excellent points, it’s a big help!

  8. Good post, Neeks!

    I love discovering backstory for my characters, personally. It truly is discovering, for me. They may be from my head, but the successful ones come always come nearly fully-formed at inception. And, I love finding ways to introduce the reader to those histories using description and dialogue.

    Of course, backstory doesn’t always need to be brought into the text itself. Just the way a person talks, acts, reacts within the story can help give the reader an idea of their history. Some backstory conflicts will necessarily come to light in the story proper, because that’s how a lot of conflict works: baggage from the past follows one everywhere, in everything. So long as backstory happens organically for the reader (and between the characters), I think it works well. Stephen King often does a good job of weaving backstory into the main plot in an engaging way. Info-dumps, on the other hand, can be migraine-inducing. Or, at least, make the reader want to skip several pages at a time. (Tom Clancy, I’m looking at you.)

    • I agree Mayumi, and thanks for the comment. Stephen King is king, that’s for sure. Info dumps are in invitation for me to skip paragraphs. There are so many ways to initiate backstory, to add it in, and to explain it. I guess it all depends on your characters and the story. Congrats on your recent Limebird birthday contest win!

  9. Backstory is where I used to get myself into trouble — because I provided too much. Over the years I have learned to whittle it down so that it doesn’t interfere with the plot (at least, I think I have learned how!). IMO, backstory is necessary if it explains character motivation, advances the plot, drops a clue, or answers a question. Anything beyond that, of course, is up to author discretion, but I think more and more readers skip backstory if it is extraneous or useless info.

    • I agree Kathryn, I skip around myself when I find those info dumps, all the time. Backstory ,can be a very useful tool when used right, and from what I’ve seen you have no problems there 🙂

  10. I’m writing a novel that is both plot and character driven. The readers need to understand the motivation behind my characters’ actions, so I had to develop their back story in relatively fine detail. It’s easy to go overboard and lose the plot, though. So I found that merging plot with back story works well. In the middle of a scene, have a character “remember” something. Don’t make it too long–a couple of sentences, just enough to give the reader some foothold as to why the character is responding in the way h/she is. Back story can also unfold via dialog, making it feel a more active part of the plot.

    • Good points Lorna, and much more believable that way 🙂 I think that adding backstory in smaller increments in different ways like that would be much more palatable to the reader.

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