In this tutorial I will explain why and how you should write your character backstory.
Character backstory – A character’s backstory is his past; the narrative history of his life preceding the commencement of the main story.
Why you should know your character’s backstory
- You discover major events in your character’s past which may affect his motivation during the main story arc.
- You are able to inject subtle clues about your character’s past into your narrative which creates mystery and interest for your audience.
- Your character’s past may be a major driving force of the main plot.
- By understanding of your character’s chronology, you may discover the opportune opening setting for your main story arc.
Backstory and motivation
Recall from Creating Characters Part I that character’s motivation drives a character’s action, which in turn, drives the plot and the entire story. A character’s motivation is affected by his past circumstances and his innate personality traits:
Example: Harry the homeless man who has inherited $10,000,000:
Backstory: Harry was born on the streets and survived childhood scavenging for food and roasting rats over trashcan fires. As a young adult, a latent leadership talent revealed itself, and Harry began to create a community among the homeless. He trained pickpockets and accumulated power among the citizens of the city’s lowest class, who became the family Harry never had. Harry now lives with complacent satisfaction in the urban waterworks as the Sewer King.
The Opening Scene: One morning Harry glances at a newspaper obituary and discovers that he has a rich great uncle who has just died, and bequeathed him with $10,000,000.
Harry’s Motivation: Since we know Harry’s backstory, we can infer his motivation and behavior upon receiving the inheritance.
Most likely, Harry will feel strangely torn. He has built a life and identity as leader of the destitute, and with the $10,000,000 inheritance, this identity is challenged. He will secretly accept the inheritance, unbeknownst to his homeless family, and then momentarily maintain his regular Sewer King lifestyle.
Stimulus: $10,000,000 Inheritance
Motivation: Initial desire to preserve identity.
Harry begins to contemplate his possibilities. He could leave his dirty life behind completely and start a rich new life. Or he could take the money and purchase a large home and take all his family with him. Eventually, Harry decides he will take the money and elevate everyone he cares about.
Stimulus: $10,000,000 Inheritance
Response: Purchase Large Mansion
Motivation: Take Care of Family
At this point the story is open and full of possibilities.
Your backstory and your audience
Just because you know your character’s past doesn’t mean you should reveal all of it. The imagination of your audience may be far better than the truth. However, if you, the author, knows the backstory, you can add subtle clues to your scrip and show, rather than tell, pieces of a mysterious past that will leave your audience intrigued.
Example: Harry the Sewer King: Let’s assume that the audience knows nothing of Harry’s backstory, and your main story starts with Harry purchasing a very expensive mansion. The house is filled with expensive furniture and limousines pull up. Out of the limos pile fifty ragged hungry street dwellers, a striking contrast to the mansion.
Now several things are going on. You, the author, know exactly what the circumstances surrounding this home purchase. Your audience, however, knows nothing, and their imagination is going wild. Why are these homeless people in this mansion? How can they afford this? Is this a charity event, or a gimmick.
You’ve intrigued and captured your audience, and now they’ll follow you for the rest of the story.
A potential plot
Sometimes the discovery of the character’s backstory is the main driving force of the story itself. In this case the narrator plays the role of a detective who is uncovering your character’s past.
Example: Harry the Sewer King: Let’s take the Harry the Sewer King story from a new angle. The story starts with Harry as wealthy old man on his death bed. Up until now he has never revealed his past to his son, Thomas, but now, in his last moments, he hand Thomas a single black and white photograph of a young boy warming his hands over a trashcan fire. Just as Harry says, “Thomas, its time you learned your history,” his heart stops, and moments later, he is dead. Thomas looks from his deceased father to the photograph, and notices a similarity in the facial features of his father and the boy in the picture.
Setting the setting
Knowing your character’s backstory can help you establish the setting and your opening scene. In the three above examples, the same essential story is told from 3 different starting points. Example 1 starts just as Harry inherits the money. Example 2 starts with Harry buying a mansion, and Example 3 starts with Harry dying. All three open to reveal the story of Harry, his backstory and how it affected his actions.
Flat and round backstories
The complexity of a character’s backstory often depends on whether the character is flat or round. In general, a flat character will have a basic backstory, whereas the backstory of a round character may have a significant influence on the plot. When writing an effective flat character, the backstory may be no more than a series of anecdotes that directly cause character quirks.
Example: Character Quirk: Indiana Jones doesn’t like snakes.
Backstory: Indiana Jones fell into train car full of snakes as a child. (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.)