Blog The Writing Process How to Use Backstory in Your Novel

How to Use Backstory in Your Novel

Zara Altair

Zara Altair

Author and Professional Semantic Writer

Published Jan 24, 2020

Photo by Christian Sterk on Unsplash  Tears of Emotion

Backstory is what happened in characters’ lives before the beginning of the story. Think of it as their personal history. Long ago – or maybe just last week – something happened that impacted your character.

Backstory helps you, the author, understand your character’s fears and motivations.

  1. Backstory Helps You Write Your Novel
  2. How Backstory Impacts Characters
  3. How to Infuse Backstory into Your Story
  4. Remember: You Need More Backstory Than Your Story Does

Backstory Helps You Write Your Novel

Backstory includes significant events that impact the character’s behavior and motivation during your story. The biggest benefit to backstory for each character is depth in your story. A rich character background allows you to pull details to improve distinctive character actions and dialogue in your story.

Your bad guy has a scar on his temple. Your love interest is reluctant to commit. Your protagonist is afraid of dogs. Characters had relationships with other characters before the beginning of your story.

Characters bring important formative incidents and history to your story. Your work as a writer is to create backstory that impacts a character’s behavior. Create significant life events for your characters:

  • A loving, supportive childhood
  • An abusive childhood
  • Lost loves – rejection or death
  • Powerful or inspiring mentors
  • Personal triumphs
  • Professional triumphs
  • Personal defeats
  • Professional defeats

Use each character’s backstory to trigger emotional responses during your story. Whether it’s past struggles or fond memories. their history will color how they respond to situations. Reactions include:

  • Retreat
  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Nostalgia
  • Comfort

For example, a character may be shy. You will show this through her actions and tentative speech patterns. The reason for her being shy is that her father was an emotional bully. She lived her childhood in humiliation, afraid to speak out. As a writer, knowing the reason for her shyness allows you to know what triggers her shy behavior.

What actions is your character doomed to repeat since they didn’t learn the first time? How do they break free of the past? Use backstory to highlight repetition and change as your story unfolds.

How Backstory Impacts Characters

Your rich backstories help you create characters with human characteristics. These characteristics and their actions help readers understand your characters to sympathize and empathize with them.

Your characters act and react to situations with personality appropriate responses that move your story forward. Strong emotional ties with characters keep your readers involved and turning pages. You build that emotional engagement through the actions your characters take in your story.

This includes:

  • How they respond to other characters
  • The way they speak
  • The different relationships they have with other characters

How to Infuse Backstory into Your Story

As rich as your characters are in your character background, you don’t need to tell your reader most of the information. In the same way that only 20% of your research ends up in your story, only a small percentage of backstory shows up in your final draft.

Your story is built on action. You know the big picture of your character, and your work as a writer is to reveal those characters through the actions and reactions that move the story forward. It's not to give an information dump on every characteristic or event from their past.

Readers learn about your characters in the same way that you learn about people in real life: by experiencing their actions.

Photo by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič - @specialdaddy on Unsplash sad girl

Too much information from the past slows down the story. Instead, use backstory to color your characters’ present actions. You keep your readers engaged by moving the story forward. You move your story through character behavior, not long descriptive passages about what happened in the past.

Backstory comes out the way it does in real life—in bits and pieces. Refrain for dumping long paragraphs of explanation. A sidekick or mentor may mention a point from backstory as it relates to a moment in the story. Or your protagonist may briefly mention a backstory event to build rapport with another character.

Flashbacks are a literary device to tell backstory to readers. Refrain. Try to get the bits and pieces of relevant backstory in through small references rather than a large flashback information dump. Long flashbacks hold up your story.

The same caution goes for dreams. Make your story run smoothly without dreams. They are overused. If you feel compelled to add dreams to your story, make them about something in the current story, not a backstory dream.

When you meet people in real life, you don’t share your entire history (including the ugly bits) right off. The same goes for backstory in your novel. Introduce previous events in small pieces— references in dialogue, a brief internal remembrance.

Your best guideline for including backstory in your novel is its relevance: if the story works without it, leave it out.

Remember: You Need More Backstory Than Your Story Does

Backstory helps you understand your characters. What you know adds dimensions to the actions and dialogue of your characters. Your main job is to move the story forward.

Ditch the flashbacks and information dumps. Always aim to show backstory through characters’ present-day actions. This will keep your story focused on the main events of each scene.

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Zara Altair

Zara Altair

Author and Professional Semantic Writer

Zara Altair writes traditional mysteries set in ancient Italy under Ostrogoths rule in The Argolicus Mysteries. She teaches mystery screenwriters and novelists at Write A Killer Mystery. She creates semantic web content for a select clientele.

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