Backstory is what happened to your characters before page one of your story. Not everything—the reader doesn’t need to know what she had for breakfast on her tenth birthday, unless it led to anaphylaxis, and that pertains to the story you’re writing. Backstory adds depth to your characters. It helps the reader to connect with a character. Knowledge of elements of the character’s backstory can introduce tension and foreshadowing (now the reader knows about that tenth birthday trip to the ER, they’ll be giving the side-eye to those strawberry pancakes she’s about to eat). You can also use backstory to establish character flaws or misbeliefs they need to overcome through the story.
Backstory can be fed in to encourage the reader to empathise with a character. As readers, we began to experience empathy toward the previously maligned Professor Snape when we learned that he loved Harry’s mother and was bullied by the boy’s father.
Sacha Black, author of craft books on how to improve your prose and write better heroes, better villains, and better side characters, believes that before writing a backstory, you need to consider who actually needs one.
“The amount of backstory you need and its purpose depends on the level and type of character. Your hero obviously needs backstory. The protagonist is the one that has the most depth and the most comprehensive personality. Your villain needs some level of backstory to explain the motive for their behaviour. But then when it comes to side characters…”
“Not all side characters are made equal.”
Sacha explains that cameo side characters who are only in your story for a brief second don’t need a backstory. Other minor characters might appear in your story a few more times than a cameo and have some transactional exchanges. They might have something distinctive about them but don’t need much depth. “A good example is Mr. Filch in the Harry Potter series. You could remove him from the story, and he wouldn’t really change it. But he has some transactional changes with Harry and causes a tiny bit of conflict. You may get the odd sentence or two of back story.”
But what about major side characters? Sacha describes them as the big guns. “They require significant page time, have an effect on the protagonists, and on the story. All of these things mean that you need some depth or illusion of depth.”
We asked Sacha how the backstory should be added.
“Backstory is required when you need to explain a behaviour, when you need to give context for why somebody is in a current situation or why they are reluctant to change. And it also helps to provide an understanding for the whys of somebody’s personality. It’s relevant to the point and to the action and motivations in that scene. You have to find those scenes where the action is oriented towards explaining behaviour or showing flaws or showing the plot problems and then drip it in.”
But what if you want the reader to know something, but not give away too much? Sacha explains that backstory can be added as foreshadowing, which she describes as the art of dropping something unusual, unexpected, and then moving very quickly on from it so that it doesn’t become a distraction.
Let’s talk tools.
There are going to be times when you might need a little help to create a character’s backstory.
“I want to expand the power of creativity.”
Jay Stilipec, a retired Navy journalist, created the Better Backstories cards through her love of role-playing games. “I just loved making new characters, and I loved making them very diverse.”
The author community factored into Jay’s endeavors shortly after she ran a Kickstarter which provided $25,000 funding and interest from people all over the world.
At Alaska Comic-Con in 2020, Jay met Craig Martelle. She showed the cards to the successful indie author, who loved them and immediately ordered thirty packs to use as giveaways in his Facebook group, 20Booksto50k. That connected the entrepreneur with more writers, and her project took off from there.
We asked Jay, how are the cards used?
“You flip over a few cards, and you’ve got a character.”
“I know people who just use the title (in bold), and they let that spark their imagination. But you’ve got some cards that have flavor text that’ll give you some suggestions. You’ve got cards that have a chart that has up to ten more suggestions. It’s just a spark to ignite the fire of this character’s back story and to make their life a little bit more realistic and believable.”
Jay is occasionally surprised and delighted by the different creative ways people use the cards.
“I’ve had people say they shuffled out three cards to each player during the [roleplaying] game at a crucial moment in the narrative. That’s brilliant. It never occurred to me. I love to hear different people’s ways of playing it, whether random or deliberate. You don’t even have to use the whole deck. You can literally go through and say, ‘you know what, these twenty cards are the backstory elements that I want to see in my story.’”
“Brainstorming power in the palm of my hand.”
We gave her the scenario of a protagonist watching a man walk down the street. Here’s what the cards revealed about the character.
“The occult card. This guy is wearing a dark robe. There’s a red glow coming from just inside the cowl. And this is already kind of leaning towards a fantasy angle. He’s looking suspicious, and then he kind of goes up to a doorway, and I get the runaway card. Our protagonist finds a cult that has been kidnapping runaway pregnant mothers to bewitch (card) their unborn babies. It’s a good, well-rounded character. A complex character is random and unexpected.”
These three cards randomly plucked from the deck have given us ideas and questions that need answering about a character’s backstory. But they have also potentially inspired a plot for a whole book or series.
How deep does Jay’s interest in backstory go? We asked if she had ever made up a backstory for a character she felt didn’t already have a sufficient one in a movie or book?
“I’ve always wondered, how did Martin and Doc meet? (Back to the Future) It’s a weird relationship that this 16-year-old boy has with the local crackpot inventor.” Jay’s backstory-finding superpower suggests they might have met when Doc put an ad for a lab assistant in the local paper, and we think she might be right!
“Intrigue the reader.”
As Science Fiction author Jon Evans says, “If you know where a character comes from, what their formative moments were, you can reference that in your story in a way that will intrigue the reader.”
So, if you feel that offering more in the way of backstory will immerse your readers more deeply into your story, it might just be the way to keep them coming back for more.
Want to find our interviewees in the wild?
Jon Evans can be found at jonevansbooks.com Twitter: @ImaginaryBros
You can see Jay and glimpse the Better Backstories cards at Baltimore Comic-Con in October.
Jay’s website is Betterbackstories.com.
On Instagram: @backstories22 Twitter: @backstories22 Facebook: betterbackstories.
Find Sacha at sachablack.co.uk. On Facebook her group is Rebel Authors, and on Instagram: @SashaBlackauthor. Podcast: Rebel Author