How to Handle Character Backstory in Your Novel
Backstory is a great tool for developing relatable, realistic, and well-rounded characters for your novel. It also helps you shape three-dimensional worlds for your characters to inhabit and explore.
But, writing backstory for a character, or for a world—and weaving it into your story in an effective way—is easier said than done.
In today’s post, I’m going to talk all about backstory—what it is, why it’s important, the #1 mistake writers make, and how to use backstory well in your own novel. We’ll also take a look at a snippet from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to see an example of backstory done well.
Let’s dive in!
What is Backstory?
Simply put, backstory is everything that has happened before the story starts on page one.
But it’s not just the stuff that happened before the story starts.
Backstory will influence everything that happens in your story from the plot events to your character’s motivations to your ability to manage your thematic subtext.
Why? Well, just like in real life, everything that has happened in your character’s past will influence who he or she is in the present.
A character’s past experiences contribute to their present-day worldview, fears, values, and goals. It’s what gives everything in a story context and meaning.
But as writers, we need to be careful. Backstory, by definition, takes the story backward in time. Whether that’s because you’re using flashbacks, internal thought, or exposition to reveal what happened in the past, every instance of backstory stops a story’s forward momentum.
So, let’s talk about where a lot of writers go wrong with backstory.
The #1 Mistake Writers Make
The biggest mistake I see writers make when it comes to backstory is delivering too much information too soon.
Writers often feel compelled to fill the beginning of their stories with backstory because they want to make sure the reader understands everything that’s about to happen.
It’s kind of like saying, “Hang on a minute, reader. Before I tell you the story you want to hear, there are some things you need to know.”
But guess what?
There’s really very little that the reader needs to know about a character’s history and motivation that they won’t learn throughout the story.
As writers, we need to know our characters’ history and why they act or think the way they do. Our readers, however, do not need a complete rundown of your characters’ history.
When you start a story off with tons of history or information, it’s going to be very hard to engage the reader and sweep them up in the world of your story. And when you answer the reader’s questions too early and too easily, it takes away a large part of the incentive for them to keep reading. In that case, the reader will likely put your book down and never come back to it.
So, how do you avoid making this mistake in your story? Let’s take a look at some backstory best practices.
Backstory Best Practices
Here are my top three tips for delivering backstory effectively in your novel. Keep this information in mind as you work through the beginning of your story, and when you write each of your scenes.
1. Only insert backstory where it’s relevant.
Backstory should always be triggered by something that’s happening in the story present. Think about how your memories pop up in your own life. They are usually triggered by something you see, hear, feel, etc. For example, say you see a car that reminds you of the one your mom used to drive. When you see that car, you’ll probably start thinking of the times you spent with your mom in that car. Or maybe there’s a certain smell that reminds you of an experience you had in the past and it not only makes you think of that experience but other things that happened during that time too. Most of us writers have no trouble thinking up rich histories for our characters, but a good storyteller holds these details back, revealing them at a time when it best serves the story.
2. Avoid “info-dumping” at all costs.
You’ve probably heard the term “info-dumping” before, but in case you haven’t, info-dumping is when a writer dumps paragraphs and paragraphs of information on the reader at one time. You really want to avoid doing this at all costs. A reader should only be told what they need to know the moment they need to know it. Why? If you give readers a whole bunch of information without something actually happening in the story present, there won’t be anything to compel them to move forward in your story. The result? The pacing of your story slows to a halt and you’ll most likely lose the reader’s interest. That’s why you really need to weave backstory into your novel bit by bit where it’s relevant to what’s happening in the scene.
3. Always show the reader why the backstory matters.
When you divert away from the main story, it’s important to show the reader why you’re doing it. In other words, show them how that piece of backstory affects the character and their present situation. Again, this has to do with inserting backstory only where it’s relevant to the scene you’re in. But it also has to do with showing the reader who your character is. In real life, people have past experiences and memories that not only shape who they are, but also what they believe, what they value, what they fear, and how they act in the present day. So, sometimes it’s necessary to include backstory to show why your character has a specific fear, motivation, belief, or mindset. This helps you create compelling and believable characters that your readers will love.
Above all, remember to give your readers credit. Readers are smart and plenty capable of following along with a story no matter how complicated it might seem when you’re writing it. Plus, the desire to figure things out as we read through a novel is part of what makes the reading experience fun and rewarding! At least it is for me!
So, now that you know my top three tips for effectively delivering backstory in your novel, let’s take a look at an example of backstory done well.
A Good Example of Backstory
J.K. Rowling does a great job with the backstory in her Harry Potter series. Take a look at this example from Chapter 7 of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (bold emphasis mine):
“Harry’s mouth fell open. The dishes in front of him were now piled with food. He had never seen so many things he liked to eat on one table: roast beef, roast chicken, pork chops and lamb chops, sausages, bacon and steak, boiled potatoes, roast potatoes, fries, Yorkshire pudding, pears, carrots, gravy, ketchup, and for some strange reason, peppermint humbugs.
The Dursleys had never exactly starved Harry, but he’d never been allowed to eat as much as he liked. Dudley had always taken anything that Harry really wanted, even if it made him sick.Harry piled his plate with a bit of everything except the peppermints and began to eat. It was all delicious.”
Can you see how the food in front of Harry triggers this little bit about how his life was at the Dursley’s? This snippet of backstory is not only informative, but it helps the reader latch onto, empathize with, and root for Harry. We want him to have more of these good moments because his life has been so miserable up until now. And, knowing how he was basically starved at the Dursley’s, we can appreciate Harry’s feelings toward the feast in front of him.
Recommended Exercise: Pick up one of your favorite books to see how the author handled backstory. By paying such close attention to the backstory in books that work, you will improve your understanding of how backstory works, and learn how to write it with more power and purpose.
How to Analyze the Backstory in Your Novel
If you have a finished draft or a work-in-progress, print out a few pages of your own work–an entire scene or chapter and highlight everything that’s NOT happening in the story present. Then, as objectively as you can, ask these questions about each highlighted area:
- Does the reader really need to know this about my character? Or is this detail something that I find interesting, but isn’t exactly crucial to the story?
- If I remove this piece of information, will the story fall apart?
If you decide that the reader absolutely must know a particular detail about the situation or the character, then ask yourself:
- Does the reader need to know this right now? Or can I reveal it somewhere else where it’s more relevant to what’s happening in the scene?
- Is there a better way to introduce this crucial bit of backstory besides simply relating it? Can I accomplish the same thing more subtly using hints or innuendos, allowing the reader to fill in the gaps with his or her imagination?
If you’re having a hard time handling backstory in your novel, I can help! I will meet you at whatever stage you’re at in the writing process and help you get to “The End.” The best part? We’ll use your own draft as a learning tool which means your first draft will be more like a fourth or fifth draft because you’ve had editorial feedback and support along the way! Learn more about book coaching here.
Backstory is necessary for any story. But it needs to feel like an organic, seamless part of the story, not something being interjected from the outside.
Yes, creating backstory and effectively weaving it into your story takes time and thought, but when you master this skill, the quality of your writing will improve. Knowing your characters inside and out will make them more real to you, and as a result, more real and relatable to your readers.
Recommended Reading: Story Genius by Lisa Cron
👉 Let's discuss in the comments: Do you struggle with weaving backstory into your story? What are your best tips or strategies for delivering backstory effectively?