Are You Asking the Right Question About Backstory?

Sat Jun 25 2016

We're about one month away from the annual PNWA Summer Writers Conference, which I'm as excited as ever to attend. I've been attending this conference for a long time, and I've noticed that whenever published authors or literary agents take questions from the audience, someone always asks about backstory: how much to create and how much to include in the story.

Unfortunately, those are the wrong questions. Effective use of backstory is not a matter of quantity. The right question is "How do I use backstory to create compelling characters?"

I have six suggestions.

Broad strokes

My first three suggestions relate to painting a character's broad strokes in ways that are compelling, support the story you want to tell, and are also enjoyable for you.

1. Create what the story demands.

Stories rarely start from a completely blank slate. You likely have a premise in mind which places certain limits and sets some expectations. Is it a young-adult adventure? A heist caper? A murder mystery? Whatever it is, your premise will shape your characters' backstory.

For example: In 2007, I wrote a young adult adventure set on the Pony Express Trail. It's a western. Being for a YA audience, the protagonist should be about 16 years old. Naturally, such a story must take place in the American West. Taken together, this points very clearly towards a backstory about a boy whose parents were homesteaders. He was born back east, but moved west at a young age with his parents, and then grew up as a farm boy.

It's not an amazing backstory. But then, a character's background doesn't have to be amazing. It just has to make sense for the story.

2. What is the character's wound?

Elizabeth Lyon, in her book Manuscript Makeover, suggests that memorable, realistic, vivid characters always have an emotional "wound" they're dealing with. Whatever the wound, it's what drives the character arc that runs in parallel with your overall story arc.

For my Pony Express novel, I needed a wound that would create problems for the main character to overcome. Ideally, it would be one that also relates well to the whole Pony Express premise. The Pony Express famously employed a lot of orphans, so I made my main character an orphan.

Again, hardly an earth-shattering choice, but it fits. Losing one's parents at an early age is a serious emotional wound. In his case, I decided it left him angry: angry at the world, at fate, at God for taking his parents away and destroying his life. His temper gets him in trouble frequently, and learning to rein his temper in before it really destroys his life is his character arc.

3. What do you love or hate in a character?

I believe that nobody can write a good novel if they don't themselves enjoy the story and the characters they're working with. Why would you even want to try? Thus, do yourself a favor by thinking about the kinds of characters you love in the genre you're writing. Write one of those.

Alternately, think about the kinds of characters you hate, that make you roll your eyes, or that you're just bored to tears of.

Me, I like ordinary people. Being one myself, I have a lot of empathy for them. Not so much for the powerful and the elites, though. Relatedly, I'm pretty much done with fantasy novels in which the protagonist turns out to be the long lost king or prince or whatever. Done to death, that is.

So for one fantasy novel, I stuffed the fantasy tropes in a sack and made my protagonist as joe-normal as I could: he's an ordinary kid apprenticed to the local blacksmith, in an absolute nothing village far, far from anywhere.

I had a great time writing that story for that character, and I think the story benefitted as well: by denying the character any special powers, connections, et cetera, he's the opposite of Superman Syndrome. He's forced to get things done the hard way, which is always good for drama.

Filling in the Details

My last three suggestions relate to fleshing out the character so that you really know who they are and what makes them tick. You can, of course, fill in the details just by thinking. But in the early stages of thinking about a story, it's really easy to get blocked on that and reach a point where you don't like anything you're thinking of. These three techniques can help you get past that.

4. Conduct an interview.

Write up a list of questions. Longer is probably better. The trick is to start with easy trivia questions like "where were you born," "how old are you," "what's your favorite pizza topping."

Work up to more personal questions like "tell me about your first boy/girlfriend," but keep the questions focused on things that won't likely have any bearing on your plot.

Finally, start asking harder questions, the kind you'd find in a serious job interview: "How do you motivate yourself to do things you need to do, but don't really want to?" "Tell me about a time when you really failed at something and what you learned from the experience?" "Tell me about a serious disagreement you've had with someone and how you handled it."

After you've written the questions, answer them in the order you wrote them. What you're doing is mentally sneaking up on the character. Answering the easy questions gives you time to train yourself to imagine what it's like to be them.

By the time you've finished the interview, you will have gained insight into the deeper motivations and emotional issues that are critical to portraying a realistic, distinctive character. As well, you'll have discovered interesting things about the character's history, some of which may be useful to the story itself.

5. Write their eulogy

Imagine the future, after your heroine has died. What would loving friends and family say at her funeral? How would they sum up her life, her accomplishments, and the essential elements of her personality? What funny little stories would they tell? Thinking backwards from a future perspective can be an effective way to generate backstory. Imagine she has already succeeded or failed at whatever your premise suggests she's going to try, and look back from that perspective.

This works because a person's emotions about past events give you great insight into what those events meant to them. If a character failed at something, do they regret it? If so, why? Dig in on that, and you'll discover why that thing mattered to them in the first place.

Similarly, if they succeeded at something, are they're proud of it? Dig in: what positive effects came about from what they succeeded at? That informs you about the character's view of the stakes involved in whatever they did.

Perhaps most interesting, though, are cases where a character succeeded at something, but comes to regret it. Hint: those kinds of feelings tell you a lot about what may be in your story's sequel.

6. Get quirky

This is the fun part. Brainstorm a bunch of random, weird stuff. Quirky hobbies, skills, or experiences your character might have. Maybe she used to be a skydiving instructor. Maybe she collects very niche vintage Jazz records. Maybe she makes paper and binds it into handmade journals with beautiful deckled edges and dyed endpapers to sell at local street fairs. Maybe she makes her own cheese at home, and has built a climate-controlled aging room in her garage.

Think up a dozen or so downright oddball details. Then pick one or two to actually use in the character's background.

Now answer the question "how did she come to have those skills?" Write a little story or vignette explaining how she got hooked on the 1963-64 Philadelphia Jazz scene, or whatever you pick. Do this is because real people aren't all-business. Yet too often, writers reveal nothing about their main characters that isn't directly related to the plot, missing out on the character's personal life.

Everybody has a personal life, so spend some time figuring out what your character does with hers.


Not all of these strategies work for everybody--or every character. Just use the ones that appeal to you. Try one for a while, then switch to another.

For instance, in stumbling upon a great quirk to include, you might realize that the quirk can be related to the character's emotional wound. For example, what if your character took up cheese making because her mother was from France and constantly bemoaned the lack of good cheese in America. Now that her mother has passed away, the cheese making remains as a way for her to hold on to that relationship.

You may not ever actually use any of your backstory details in the book. They might not come up in the story, and that's fine. Even if they don't, the exercise of figuring them out will turn the character from an idea to a fully-realized person in your head, which will give you all the tools you need to write their story in a way that is true to who they are.

More about doing that next time...