Writing Fiction: What to do with character backstory

If the story is about what you are doing now and from now, then, everything that happened, the past, becomes your backstory.

What you did yesterday, last week, last year, or, when you were five is all backstory.

Characters have backstory, too. Even if they died and then were reincarnated, that’s still part of their backstory because it’s all the stuff that happened in the past.

Sometimes that backstory is the reason why they are doing what they are doing today.

Anyway, basically what I’m saying is that their past affects their future.

So,

if you are writing a story, of course the story is important but you need to think about the backstory.

Character A is mean to their younger sister. Oh how awful! But why? Well, when Character A was little, their older brother was mean to them and they learned how to act toward a sibling that way. Why was he mean to Character A? Well, the older brother was annoyed because the parents constantly compared him with his siblings.

See? That’s the backstory behind the backstory behind the backstory…it’s like Inception, it keeps going deeper and deeper.

In order to make your characters’ current actions seem reasonable, you need to figure out their backstory and the backstory of their backstory.

Where it gets tricky

You find yourself in a situation where Character A’s action involved several people, or even an entire chunk of history.

Oh, gosh, darn it, what are you gonna do?

Persian cat room guardian
Gosh darn it.

There are a few ways to incorporate backstory:

1. Easy Street: A flashback.

This is what I call easy street *cue Annie musical “Easy Street”*. A flashback can get a little dangerously tell-y (as in show vs tell) sometimes and repetitive. When you see flashbacks in a movie, often it works even if it is repetitive. It shows the character is constantly bothered by their past.

But if you do that in a book, it gets repetitive for the reader and slows the story down, becoming more like a nuisance rather than a fun read.

I’m not talking down on flashbacks. I do them…very, very rarely. I choose the next option more often.

2. Peppered Hints: Give little hints about it here and there at appropriate times.

This second option I do more often and I personally consider it to be the best way to deal with important backstory.

But it only works if you do it during appropriate times.

What that means is that you don’t talk about where Stitch came from while Lilo is crying after fighting with her sister. You talk about it when Stitch’s captors are after him and Lilo sees this.

You don’t talk about the past in the present during moments where knowing that past doesn’t change anybody’s ideas about the present.

Does knowing Stitch came from outer space make Lilo feel better after fighting with her sister? No. And it doesn’t make sense to us, the people watching or reading. Knowing Stitch came from outer space…th-that does nothing! I don’t learn anything extra about the situation by knowing that.

But if Stitch’s captors come for him and Lilo is put in danger, then, we can be told he escaped from his outer space experiment prison and is like a wanted fugitive. Then it makes sense to tell us his backstory.

I know in Disney we knew about where he’s from in the beginning but, just…just let that slide for example’s sake, okay? 😉

So, I wouldn’t encourage the easy street but I’m not against it as long as it’s not overdone.

And, I wouldn’t push the peppering but…I do encourage it. Not strongly but…it might be good to consider for your story 🙂

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