Backstory is fundamental. Backstory is cumbersome. Backstory is intriguing. Backstory is useless.
I’ve heard all of these adjectives applied to the plot element commonly referred to as backstory. If you don’t know what backstory is, it is a tangential sub-story that describes a character’s past actions. It is often used to help sculpt a character’s personality or create sympathy and a relationship between the reader and the character. It can help explain what motivates a particular character to take certain actions. It can also provide more depth to the relationship between two characters, such as a romance, a friendship, a familial relationship, or, conversely, a rivalry or revenge scenario.
In his book, On Writing, Stephen King argues that backstory should be the last tool you implement to explain your character. Since the reader just started the book, they don’t have a enough of a sympathetic or empathetic relationship with your characters to care about their backstories yet. It is imperative to wait until you’ve established a relationship between reader and character before you start boring your audience with backstory. That is why, in The Emerald Tablet, I try very hard to wait until the second half of the book to start giving the backstory of my characters. This has led many readers to say: “I hated XYZ character until the last third of the book.”
Backstory is not necessarily limited to a character, if you are writing a science-fiction or fantasy book that involves creating a new world, that world must have a history in order for current events to be placed in context. Backstory can provide the crucial history needed to give your new world depth and realism.
There are a few ways to do backstory effectively, without slowing down the pace of your book or making it seem unrealistic. In On Writing, King goes through several of these techniques in more detail.
I will briefly explain a few of them here.
1) Flashback: This is when a character has memories of the past. Example: “Martha recalled her mother’s singing. Her mom used to sit on a rocking chair by the fire and knit. She had the voice of an angel.” Many writers try to use dreams as a way to convey flashbacks. However, that technique can come off as contrived. In real life, dreams are rarely an exact replay of a past event.
2) Flashback/Dialogue: This is the same thing as a flashback, just told through a conversation. Example: “Do you remember how our mom used to sing? She would sit in that rocking chair, knitting away the night. She had the voice of an angel.”
3) Summary: This is the most common technique, often used by authors of fantasy books. George R.R. Martin frequently uses this technique in his fantasy series, A Song of Fire and Ice. Example: James stared at the glimmering steel of the blade. It had been his father’s sword. When he was twelve, James’s dad gave it to him for his birthday.
Now that you have an idea of the primary techniques used by authors to create backstory, there are some rules I want to go over because the whole “backstory is cumbersome” argument is a valid point.
1) Keep backstory short: Don’t overload your readers. Nobody wants to read twelve pages of backstory. Feed them your character’s history over the course of your whole book. No word vomiting.
2) Make backstory relevant: Backstory is what happened in the past. Readers only care about what is happening now to your characters so only tell them what they need to know to understand your character’s current actions. Nobody cares if Johnny’s mom skipped his eleventh birthday party unless that is relevant to your current plot.
3) Tell backstory from the perspective of the appropriate character: John shouldn’t tell Amy’s backstory for her.
4) Keep backstory logical: If your character is being attacked, is in the middle of a struggle or any intense situation, that character shouldn’t be thinking about the time she got ice cream with her boyfriend.
Most importantly, and this is related to Rule #1 regarding relevancy, everything in a story must be there for a reason and that includes backstory. As an author, you may know everything about your characters from their favorite song to their preference for Coke or Pepsi. But just because you know it, doesn’t mean your reader has to.