by Lori Freeland
My favorite line from Tangled is when Flynn Rider tells Rapunzel, “I don’t do backstory.” To me, it sets the tone for who he is and how he’s going to change. His past is his past, and he refuses to dump it on anyone—even himself. And that is his backstory.
Backstory is everything that’s happened in your characters’ lives up to the moment we meet them. It’s the people, places, and events he’s experienced. The family and friends she did or didn’t have. How his parents raised him. The way her childhood illness colored her world.
Like real people, your characters have a past. It’s what’s shaped them into who they are and what pushes them up and over their character arc into who they’re supposed to become.
If we share too much too fast, it pulls the reader back in time and slows down the story’s pacing. If we share too little too late, it leaves the reader confused and your characters hollow.
The same way that it’s hard to connect with shallow people in real life, it’s hard to connect with hollow characters in a book. Also, remember, backstory is mostly telling rather than showing. That’s okay sometimes, but too much telling runs the risk of readers skimming your pages.
Backstory. You can’t write with it. You can’t write without it. So how do you sidestep the information dump and slip subtly into the middle ground?
Let’s start by figuring out what’s important. Initially, everything you learn about each person in your story is for you as the writer.
Sometimes you create the characters. Sometimes the characters create themselves. That’s what’s fun about writing fiction. Figuring out the past helps you write a deeper, more rounded character. But that doesn’t mean the reader needs or wants to know every detail.
Try listing your character’s backstory in bullet points. Use those points in small chunks, sprinkling them throughout the book where they fit the best. Checking off each one as you use it helps keep track of what you’ve already included and what you’re still missing.
Just like the reader doesn’t need to know every piece of a character’s backstory, not every character needs a backstory.
Unless the doctor or flight attendant or police offer plays a crucial role in a main character’s development, we never have to know his wife left him, her daughter died, or he’s retiring early. If it doesn’t matter . . . it doesn’t matter.
Sometimes writers believe the reader must have the backstory. Right away. On the first page. They feel the need to explain why Sarah cries at comedies or Josh hates the rain or Penny believes she’ll never find love.
“You don’t understand,” they say. “The reader won’t get my hero without knowing where he came from.”
I do understand. And they’re right. Sort of. But timing is everything. Just like when we’re getting to know a person in real life, we don’t want all twenty or forty or sixty years dumped on us at once, especially when other (more important) action is going on.
Part of the fun is the getting-to-know-you process. Don’t be afraid to take your time. With each new situation you put your characters into, the reader will learn more about who those characters are.
Think of unfolding the past as the thrill of the chase. Make your reader turn the pages to discover pieces of your character’s personal puzzle. Don’t give it all away upfront. Make finding out an adventure. And give opportunities to ask “why.”
Why is Jim afraid of the subway? Why does Kelly suddenly refuse to go out with her friends when that’s all she used to do? Why is Susan turning down the promotion she’s worked a lifetime for? Why do fireworks send six-year-old Sam scurrying under the bed?
Consider what you’ve already shared and what you’re going to be sharing in the future. Don’t repeat information your reader knows just because another character needs to find out.
There are creative ways to mention what’s already been revealed. Keeping track is where your bullet list is helpful.
Your character’s past affects future choices/actions/words. Sometimes life heals. Other times, it leaves scars. If someone tried to commit suicide in a bathtub, they’re not going to take a hot soak to relax.
Omitting backstory when it’s needed takes away motivation. If she steps completely out of character or he acts inappropriately without a hint of what prompted the change, the reader will wonder what’s going on. And not in a good way.
As you’re editing, ask yourself if you didn’t know the backstory, would your dialogue, character interactions, and story make enough sense to keep your reader hooked but not confused?
Sneak in backstory by actively weaving it in. That way it feels natural and organic to the story and the characters. You can do this many few different ways. Below are some examples. I’ve put the “backstory hits” in bold.
“Wallflower!” Zander belted out the nickname he’d given me in eighth grade.
“It’ll be our secret,” he said.
“Like how you kept my underwear a secret during the last performance of The King and I?” And sent me bolting out of town.
“Aw, come on, Hendrix.” Zander’s blue eyes burned into me. “It was supposed to be a tiny little slit down the back of the dress.” He held his thumb and index finger apart. “Not an entire costume malfunction.”
“I guess being alone at night is getting to me.” I reached deep for an old Kate smile. One I hadn’t worn in a while.
I couldn’t lose the only family I had. Couldn’t leave him alone and vulnerable. Not the grandpa who’d stepped in as a dad when my mom didn’t want me.
Six years, and Zander still had the ability to throw me into a steep spin.
“Yes, ma’am.” Alek’s silly smirk went pure Texan, and he moved in to put his arm around me.
A chill broke over my skin, and I stumbled back.
His grin dropped quicker than his arms.
My auto-flinch didn’t care. It overrode the thousand hugs he’d already given me, the hundred times we’d squeezed into a crowded restaurant booth, and every single one of the nights we’d fallen asleep on the couch watching horror movie marathons. together.
My grandpa had been everyone’s grandpa ever since I could remember, his kitchen table more popular than the town’s only bar.
The house hadn’t changed in the six years I’d been gone. The L-shaped, brick ranch with narrow rectangular windows still had the same 1960s doctor’s office vibe.
Just as I turned to retrace my steps, a deep voice yelled, “In the back.”
A voice that zip-tied my chest. A deep, throaty, guitar-thrum of a voice I hadn’t heard since I bailed on this town after graduation. Actually, Alexander Ryland was the reason I’d bailed after graduation.
Backstory can be fun. So can inventing new ways to add it in.
Now it’s your turn. Do you find you have too much or too little when it comes to backstory? In what ways do you sneak in a character’s past? I’d love for you to share examples in the comments.
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An encourager at heart, author, editor, and writing coach Lori Freeland believes everyone has a story to tell. She’s presented multiple workshops at writer’s conferences across the country and writes everything from non-fiction to short stories to novels—YA to adult. When she’s not curled up with her husband drinking too much coffee and worrying about her kids, she loves to mess with the lives of the imaginary people living in her head.
You can find her young adult and contemporary romance at lorifreeland.com and her inspirational blog and writing tips at lafreeland.com. Her book, Where You Belong: a runaway series novella, is currently free on Kindle Unlimited.
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What an excellent, practical, actionable summary! As someone who's struggled with an over-affection for backstory, I totally agree that less is more. Another tactic that helps me is to take a scene that has a lot of backstory that's happening (endlessly) in the POV character's head and delete all of it to see what the scene looks like and which sentences are actually needed; only those earn their way back in. Does the reader need to know this, right this very second? I've also learned to think of backstory as something I need to write (so I can get to know the character) but the reader doesn't need to read. As you illustrate so beautifully, a single sentence might be all that's needed to evoke a salient memory or fact about the character—that's relevant to the front story in order to keep it moving. Sometimes delaying a bit of backstory can be very powerful so that it answers a question that's already been raised, rather than answering it before the reader's had a chance to wonder ....
I love the idea of taking everything out and only putting back in what absolutely has to be there!
The information is spot-on, but it's the stellar examples that really hit home. Great job.
Thank you. I love examples. It's the way I learn best.
Great info and excellent reminders!
Great information, Lori. When I first stared writing, backstory data dumps were a huge problem for me. I found that writing short stories helped a lot. There's no room for for unnecessary details. It taught be how to boil things down to what was essential and weed out the excess details. Flash fiction sharpened the word-cutting knife even further.
I agree! Short stories are a great way to learn all the aspects of storytelling and the skills of writing. I wish every new writer would start that way.
Thank you, Lori, for these examples! I 've been doing a dive on better use of dialogue. And this is certainly a great way to incorporate backstory.
You are welcome!
Great examples! This truly is a balancing act. Data dumps are so tempting, but not the way to go.
I like to use description and dialogue for backstory.
I like description and internal thought the best, but I'm working to try and use the others more.
Thanks Lori, especially for the examples. Too often writing advice is reduced to "Do This" but never explains what "This" is. Examples are a treasure.
Examples are a treasure. I love being "shown" concrete ideas that I can model.
I try to limit the backstory or just bring in enough at appropriate times in the story.
There is definitely a fine line between too much and too little, isn't there?
The first draft of my first novel had little character backstory. It was dialogue and actions, sparse prose, and (as it was SciFi) a number of technical info dumps. Once I found a good critique group and began learning the trade, I did a major rewrite, improving my prose, gently introducing backstory for my characters, and cutting, parsing, and refining my technological info dumps so as to make them (mostly) painless for the readers. I've received nothing but positive feedback from readers, and am satisfied I did a professional job. Now, if I only had the time and money to market it.
Writer's groups are the best. And I love the idea of "gently introducing" backstory. ?
I've always always struggled with backstory. Rather than over-imbibe, I usually try to leave it all out of the first draft and then add it in on the second run. I only allow in what I can fit into dialogue. When I do it that way, I find out that I usually don't need much more.
That makes sense. For me, the internal thought backstory comes more naturally, so I always put that in right away. The others are more deliberate and not first draft.
NOTE TO ALL: Lori is in Texas where ice and snow and rolling blackouts are making life hard. As soon as she can get some phone charge going, she'll hop in to answer comments!
I'm so sorry it's taken me so long to read your comments. Coldmaggedon is a real thing y'all! I moved out of Wisconsin for a reason ?
Excellent post, Lori! You had me at the very beginning where you said that initially everything you learn about a character is for you, the writer. I need to keep that in mind. Since I write thrillers they must be pretty lean, but I need to know more about the characters than I use. It's ok to figure out how a character's grandmother was born in a covered wagon, but it's for you, not necessarily the audience. The more you know about your people the better.
You are welcome!
Great stuff! And I particularly appreciated your fantastic examples.
Useful, practical, and specific--I'll be sharing in my next FoxPrint newsletter. Great stuff!