Backstory Done Right
Everyone has a backstory!
Every new character is introduced at a particular point in their lives: their childhood, teen years, or even well into their adults. All the important parts of the book/story happen AFTER they’re introduced, but you need to know about their backstory in order to understand who they are, where they’ve come from, what makes them tick, etc. That backstory is vital for the development of your character!
The question here is: how can you give that backstory the right way?
Most beginner writers will do backstory via infodump—meaning they’ll have chapters or even pages filled with as much backstory as they feel is necessary. However, there’s a problem with that: too much backstory can be boring and detract from both the characters you’re introducing and the story you’re telling.
The key to doing backstory right (and keep in mind, this is just one writer’s perspective) is to dole it out in bits and pieces.
As a “for instance”, I’m going to use Blade of the Destroyer, the first novel in my The Last Bucelarii series. The main character, the Hunter, is an immortal half-demon, so you can imagine how much backstory I have to introduce!
But, instead of getting all info-dumpy, I wrote it into the story bits and pieces at a time. For example:
- In Chapter 1, you find out that the Hunter isn’t thrilled about killing, and you see WHY he does it—the voice in his head that drives him.
- In Chapter 2, you catch a glimpse of the scars on his body, one scar for every kill. You’re introduced to the fact that he wears disguises to hide himself from his enemies, but it makes him feel like an outcast. You learn that he can’t remember his life before arriving at his city 50 years earlier.
- In Chapter 3, the memory loss is brought up again, and his disgust of humans is brought out. But it’s done mid-scene, so there is action and activity going on all around him as he’s having a moment of contemplation.
- In Chapter 5, more of the disguises are brought out, as well as an explanation for why he wears the disguises. You also get a bit of backstory on his life as an assassin, and how he obtained his reputation for being the legendary killer he is.
- In Chapter 9, you find out the mystery that matters most to him: the mystery woman he can only occasionally remember in his dreams.
These elements of backstory were the only things that REALLY mattered to the Hunter’s story, at least in the Book 1. Throughout the other six books in the series, I develop more and more of his backstory, giving you greater insight into what the character is and what makes him tick.
Now, that’s easier to do if you’re writing a series, but what if you’re writing a standalone novel? The answer remains the same: do it in bits and pieces.
As you see above, the backstory is doled out enough that you can connect with the character, but it’s not the focus of the earlier chapters. In fact, before you find out about the Hunter’s backstory in Chapter 1, he’s already killed four people. There’s action to get you hooked, then a bit of backstory to connect you to the character.
That’s what backstory really is: the connection between the reader and the character. Backstory should ONLY be used to bring out things that really matter to the story at hand, or to make the character relatable and understandable.
And NEVER do it in the form of an info-dump. Break up the important backstory into bits and pieces, and scatter them around the first act (or even the second act) of your novel. You need to introduce them early enough that they are relevant, but before you can do that, you need to get the reader hooked on your character, your world, and your story. Backstory plays a role in connecting the reader to your character and his/her plight, but you need to give them action first.
Start your story with a bang—big action scenes, intense emotions, etc. Once you’ve drawn the reader in, throw in a small amount of backstory to make them sit up and take notice of your character. Then go back to the action, and keep things moving. Slowly add in more bits of backstory, and ONLY when and where necessary.
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That’s the key to informing your readers about the character, but doing so in a subtle way that keeps them interested in the story you’re telling.