Once you have a really great backstory for your character, you’ll probably feel like drawing a lot of attention to it from the get-go. After all, you worked so hard on it! Besides, it’s interesting, and it’s important for understanding the nuances of the character!
But hold on…
Revealing a character’s backstory is a delicate process, and you can throw your entire story out of balance if you let yourself get carried away. In most cases, readers don’t need to know a character’s entire backstory—but especially not all upfront. You need to be thoughtful in your approach, and utilize the character’s backstory as a tool for progressing the plot. Just inserting information carelessly can bore your readers, even if you think your characters are interesting enough to highlight.
Things to Consider When Writing a Backstory
First and foremost, before you get started, your character needs to actually have a backstory. Maybe you’re not like the example above, and you haven’t actually given the backstory much thought. Well, you’re in luck, because I already have an article on the topic: How to Create Compelling Character Backstories. Check that out first and come back to this article!
If you want a quick rundown of what to include, however, here’s a short list of things you should consider when creating a character’s backstory:
- Place of Origin
- Socioeconomic Status
- Circumstances of Birth
- Love Life
- Defining Moments
The Do’s and Don’ts of Revealing a Character’s Backstory
There are a lot of ways you can mess up revealing a character’s backstory, so you should take care to avoid some common mistakes. It’s easy to get carried away, but with a little mindful planning, you can keep your story on the right track.
To be clear, this isn’t intended to control what you create or how you tell your stories. This advice details the best approach from my experience, but it is by no means the only approach. Not all of the points apply to every type of story, either. Only you truly know what is best for your story, and you shouldn’t feel like anyone can dictate how you share it.
With that said, let’s get on to the do’s and don’ts of revealing a character’s backstory!
DO Write Everything Down About Your Character
When you’re coming up with the backstory for a character, be prepared to write absolutely everything down—even if you don’t think it’s important. If the character was in the boy scouts, if they were in the local newspaper once, or if they sprained their ankle walking up a specific hill, then you should keep track of all that. If you thought about the situation for a second, you should write it down.
Although that sounds like you’ll be drowning in useless information, it can actually be quite helpful to you. Not only is it a good snapshot of the character’s life as a whole, but it can also give you a bigger-picture understanding of who they are and what they’ve gone through.
Finally, taking awesome notes on everything makes it easy to pull little details from their life to enhance their dialogue, flaws, personality, and much more. You can tease readers with little windows into the character’s past to keep things interesting and make them feel not just well-designed, but alive.
Although I just said you should write everything down, that doesn’t mean you’ll end up actually including every piece of information you wrote down. It can be really tempting to share everything about your characters and their history, especially if you’ve worked hard on it, but it’s important not to cross the line.
The past can be boring, and your readers just aren’t going to care about every little detail. You should know everything your character knows to make it easier to write about them, but your reader only needs to know the parts that are applicable to the plot. That might seem disheartening, but your story will end up better off if you leave the little details out.
This is especially true if you have many characters. The way you treat a protagonist’s backstory should be different from how you treat a minor character’s backstory. This article is mostly about your protagonists, but if you want to learn more about how to handle the other characters in your story, check out How to Write Minor Characters.
Depending on how your readers react to your story, you might even be able to write a spinoff about a character whose past you didn’t have space to explore in the main story.
DO Pinpoint the Defining Events that Impacted the Character
Some events stand out as particularly impactful in a character’s life. Whether it’s a sudden event that changes their life forever or a new opportunity that shapes their future, events like these have the power to influence the character’s behavior much more than other events. These can be things like:
- A fateful meeting
- A sudden accident
- A career change
- A spontaneous trip
- A difficult decision
- A new diagnosis
- A broken bone
- A promotion
- A new house
- The loss of a loved one
Identify the parts of a character’s past that influenced them the most, and focus on developing the details of those particular events—such as where they were, what was happening around them, and even the weather. If a character experienced something traumatic on a foggy morning, then they may associate fog with danger. Use those details to spark a reader’s curiosity about what the character has experienced.
DON’T Get Carried Away
Large, life-changing events aren’t the only things that can impact a person’s life, but that doesn’t mean you should be obsessing over every little thing that your character has experienced. You need to stay focused on the big events, otherwise, your notes will end up being too long and cluttered. Take note of the little things, sure, but only dive into the details of the big events.
DO Show Moral Conflict Throughout the Character’s Past
No matter how good or bad your characters are portrayed in the present story, there was a time when they questioned their own morality. Don’t be afraid to have your protagonists make terrible choices or struggle with doing the right thing, and don’t be afraid of showing some empathy in your villains. Everyone does good and bad things. It’s the way they feel about their past choices, not the choices themselves, that defines them.
A character’s past is interesting if it is complicated and riddled with internal conflict. This is especially true for villains. A villain that struggled to do the right thing and fell victim to their circumstances is going to resonate with your readers more than a villain who is simply bad for the sake of being bad. Likewise, a hero who makes mistakes is going to be more relatable than one who is perfect.
Villains are fun to write, and they can have some of the most complicated pasts of any character. My other article How to Write Good Villains in Fiction goes into some other ways you can make your villains more sympathetic and memorable, so check it out if you want to make some lovable baddies!
DON’T Narrate the Backstory
Nothing will lose you readers faster than starting a story with a history lesson. No one wants to read a synopsis of the last few decades (or centuries, in some cases), even if that reveals vital context about the world and the characters in it.
Prologues are tempting to write because they are easy, but that is a one-way road towards producing a mediocre story. The truth is, whatever context a prologue provides could be weaved into the story in other, more entertaining ways.
Even flashbacks are on thin ice, but there are situations in which a flashback could work with the narrative, instead of as a crutch.
DO Use Secondary Sources to Reveal Things
In almost all cases, it’s better to show, not tell, readers what happened before the start of the story. To do this, writers use what’s known as “secondary sources” to reveal information about something, rather than simply narrating what a reader should know about it. Secondary sources can be things such as:
- Diaries or journals
- Old photographs
- A character’s scars
- Dents, scrapes, or other damages to rooms or objects
- Old newspapers
- Public records
- A character’s belongings
Secondary sources can be explicit, like written notes or old pictures, or they can be mere suggestions that there is more to something than meets the eye. While a journal could explicitly reveal information on a specific person, something like a dent in a doorway or holes in a wall could suggest that abuse was present in the house at some point, without spelling it out for your readers.
DON’T Reveal Too Much Too Soon
If you reveal too much information too early on, no matter how emotional or gut-wrenching you think it is, you run the risk of your readers just not caring. You need to give readers time to get adjusted to your characters and to empathize with them before you start revealing anything too in-depth. Let your readers establish a bond with your characters first, and then they will start caring about the more intimate details of their lives.
Not only that, but revealing too much too soon can be overwhelming for a reader. Make sure you are pacing things well, or your story might move too fast.
DO Create a Visual Timeline of the Character’s Past
Creating a visual timeline of events from a character’s past can help you keep your notes organized in a chronological manner. This can help you remember when things happened in relation to other events, as well as how things line up between different characters’ pasts. It can also help you identify any gaps or missing information in the character’s life.
A visual timeline doesn’t have to be fancy. You could start by just drawing a line on a piece of paper and adding notches for each year or period in their life. Then, simply write an abbreviated explanation of the event near the line, and connect it to the appropriate notch for the year the event happened. You can, of course, use online software or other digital means to create a more refined look, but that isn’t necessary—you’ll be the only one looking at it anyway.
DON’T Include Every Single Life Event in that Visual Timeline
It’s easy to get carried away when you’re making a visual timeline for a character, but keep in mind you want it to be easy to view and straightforward. Too much clutter will make it confusing and difficult to locate specific information.
When you’re looking for information to include in a character’s timeline, look to the events that you previously determined were the most impactful. These events are things like starting a new relationship, moving to a new place, or losing a loved one. Make sure those big events make it on the timeline first. Then you can start adding in smaller events afterward if you have gaps to fill.
DO Hint at the Backstory through Conversations with Other Characters
Dialogue is a helpful tool for revealing information to your readers. Conversation is nuanced and can reveal a lot more than just what is objectively said. A different expression, a change in tone, a stutter, or a change in body language can all influence the meaning of a sentence. Heck, that’s the entire idea behind sarcasm: changing the meaning of a phrase by altering one’s tone.
Characters can also crack inside jokes, poke fun at old insecurities, and simply talk about old times together. Your readers can pick up on the things being said (and being unspoken), and learn in a much more involved way than if you simply narrated the same information. For example, a character may joke about their friend’s taste in men to indicate that they have had multiple bad relationships.
By using dialogue to reveal information, you give readers the sense of being let in on the conversation, and it can make them more invested in the story as a whole.
DON’T Let Your Characters Tell Everything
One mistake that many writers make is that they make their characters too talkative. It’s one thing to have characters talking about their personal struggles with close friends, but it’s a whole other situation to have a character pour their heart out to someone they just met.
Most people are not inherently trusting, and on top of that, people generally don’t like to talk about bad experiences. If a character witnessed their mother die in front of them, they aren’t likely to be very chatty about the event—in fact, they would likely actively avoid discussing such a traumatic event at all, if possible. It will feel inauthentic to your readers if your characters open up about their personal lives too readily.
There is an exception to this rule, of course. Some people really are just incredibly open and eager to over-share, and some other people don’t fully understand social cues and what is or isn’t appropriate. If your character is like that, then you need to establish that early on.
Why Revealing Character Backstories Carefully is Important
A character’s backstory is an important part of who they are, and being able to share that with your readers is really valuable if the situation is right. A good and carefully revealed backstory can:
- Make readers empathize with your characters
- Invest readers in the storyline
- Fuel conflict, both within the character and with others
- Keep readers entertained
- Enrich the world the story takes place in
- Immerse readers into the narrative
Needless to say, backstories are important, but revealing them carelessly can make even the best backstory feel dull.
Take care, take your time, and don’t be afraid of rewriting!