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  • Writer's pictureStuart Wakefield

The Art of Character Backstory



Backstory is... well... complicated.

Well-written backstory gives context and depth to characters, making them more believable. When we understand a character's past, we can empathise with their struggles and triumphs, fostering a stronger emotional connection. And backstories can act as a driving force behind character motivations, fears, and desires, propelling the plot forward and generating compelling conflicts.


Characters with well-crafted backstories feel more authentic because they carry the weight of their experiences into the story's present. By delving into their past, we writers can explore the formative events that shaped their personalities, values, and beliefs. This exploration adds layers of complexity to the characters, making them feel like real individuals with unique histories.


And that's what we want, right? Riiight?


Backstory also helps to create a sense of continuity and coherence in a character's actions and decisions. When we can trace the origins of a character's behaviours to their experiences, it creates a sense of narrative logic that enhances the overall story's realism.


I often challenge my book coaching clients to defend their characters' actions in their stories.


"Pretend you're defending them in court," I say. "How can you justify your client's actions to the jury?"


There's usually a bit of mumbling and shuffling, then they admit they need to do a bit more work on character.


While backstories are essential for character development, they can also become a stumbling block if not handled carefully. Here are some common mistakes to avoid:


Info Dumping: Presenting a character's entire history in one large block of exposition can be overwhelming, not to mention ruin the flow of the story. Instead, it's best to reveal backstory information gradually and strategically.


Irrelevance: Not everything about a character's past will be relevant to your story. Focus on those elements that directly impact the character's present motivations and goals.


Inconsistency: Make sure that the events and details in a character's backstory align with the portrayal of the character in the main story. Inconsistencies will confuse readers and weaken the story. If you've ever seen a friend behave out of character, chances are there was something you didn't know about your friend that made them act this way. Once you found out what that thing was, everything fell into place. With that extra knowledge, your friend's behaviour was entirely understandable.


Over-complication: Avoid overly complex backstories that may confuse readers or distract from the main plot. Keep the backstory concise and impactful.


Here are just some techniques you can use to work backstory into your... story.


Flashbacks


Flashbacks are powerful tools when you use them judiciously. A good flashback transports readers directly into the character's past, allowing them to experience crucial events firsthand. When employing flashbacks, focus on key moments that significantly impacted the character's development.


Sarah stood on the cliff's edge, the salt-scented wind tangling her hair. The crashing waves below seemed to match the turmoil in her heart.


Years ago, she was a young girl, full of dreams and innocence. Her father's laughter echoed as he twirled her around, the music of their joy harmonising with the waves.


Then the world shifted. The once bright day turned to darkness, and her father's laughter was replaced by screams of terror. The storm came out of nowhere, waves swelling ominously. In a frantic scramble, her father shielded her from the onslaught, his strong arms wrapping around her.

She could feel the weight of his fear, his determination to protect her. The wind howled, rain stinging like needles. And then, in a blinding flash, a lightning bolt struck the sea. The world exploded into chaos. The force of the impact threw them to the ground, the ground beneath them trembling.


And then, as suddenly as it began, the storm receded, leaving them battered but...


"Dad?" Sarah said. "Dad?"


That storm had stolen her father from her, leaving an indelible mark on her soul. But it had also ignited a fire within her—an unyielding spirit, a determination to face life's tempests head-on.


Memories


Memories can be woven into the narrative more subtly. Use vivid and sensory language to describe the character's recollections, evoking emotions and making the memories feel immediate and real.


The aroma of freshly baked bread wafted through the air, mingling with the soft murmur of conversation. Emma closed her eyes for a moment, letting the scent transport her back in time.

She was a child again, standing in her grandmother's cosy kitchen. The sunlight streamed through the curtains, casting warm patterns on the chequered floor. The worn wooden table was covered with flour-dusted dough, and her grandmother's hands moved with a grace born of decades of practice.


Emma watched with awe as those hands kneaded the dough, each movement a testament to a lifetime of love and tradition. Her grandmother's laughter, like tinkling wind chimes, filled the room as she shared stories of her own childhood—of family gatherings, secret recipes, and the magic of turning simple ingredients into cherished memories.


And then, as if conjured by her grandmother's touch, the memory of their shared laughter enveloped Emma. She could feel the dough beneath her own small hands, squishing and shaping, flour dusting her cheeks. The joy of that moment, the connection that transcended generations, was as real now as it was then.


Emma opened her eyes to the present, a bittersweet smile tugging at her lips. As she stepped closer to the counter, the scent of freshly baked bread wrapped around her like a warm embrace. The legacy of her grandmother's kitchen was alive in every loaf, in every sprinkle of flour, in every customer's delighted sigh. And though time had passed, the memory remained, etched into her senses and her heart.


Dialogue


Engaging dialogue can reveal important aspects of a character's past. Through conversations with other characters, the character may indirectly divulge information about their past, providing depth to both the character and the relationship.


Sam stared at the old photograph on the wall, a wistful smile tugging at his lips. Erica, curious, leaned in. "What's that?"

He glanced at her briefly. "That's my first car, a beat-up Chevy I bought with my first paycheck."

Her eyebrows arched. "You seem fond of it."

He chuckled. "Oh, more than fond. That Chevy was my escape."

"Escape from what?" she said, her voice gentle.

His gaze turned distant. "From the weight of expectations, I guess. That car was my declaration of independence."

"And did it work?"

He turned to her, a spark of nostalgia in his eyes. "Found my own path, learned about life."

She smiled. "Sounds like that old Chevy was more than just a car."

"It was a piece of my history," he said, his voice soft. "Reminds me that sometimes, you gotta veer off the planned route to truly find yourself."


In this excerpt, Erica has glimpsed Sam's past—a past that had shaped him into the person he was today. In his words about that beat-up Chevy, she sensed a yearning for freedom, a determination to carve his own path, and a sense of adventure that still burned brightly within him.


Show, Don't Tell


The age-old writing advice of "show, don't tell" applies to backstory as well. Instead of straightforwardly telling readers about the character's past, we should aim to show it through actions, emotions, and experiences. This approach allows readers to connect with the character on a more profound level—and makes the story more immersive.


An example of telling:


Melissa sat on the porch, gazing out at the sunset. She had always been a survivor, overcoming a troubled childhood marked by poverty and neglect. Growing up in a rundown neighbourhood, she learned to be resourceful and independent early on. Despite the challenges, Melissa excelled in school and worked tirelessly to secure a scholarship for college. Her past had taught her the value of hard work and determination, shaping her into the strong and resilient woman she had become.


An example of showing:


Melissa settled onto the porch steps, her eyes fixed on the sun's descent. The colours of the fading sky mirrored the hues of her memories—of a time when twilight meant seeking safety from the world outside. Beyond the rusty gate, the streetlights flickered to life in the dimming light, a familiar dance that once guided her steps home.


Her gaze traced the cracks on the porch floor, as intricate as the lines of her journey. The memories of bare cupboards and threadbare clothes lingered, etched into the frayed edges of her mind. The peeling paint on the porch railing mirrored the layers she shed, each one a testament to her resilience.


A breeze rustled the leaves, carrying with it echoes of childhood laughter, faint as a whisper. The rhythm of footsteps on the pavement, hesitant yet determined, painted a vivid picture of a girl forging her own path. She remembered collecting discarded items, transforming them into treasures—a mosaic of resourcefulness etched into her heart.


Her fingers brushed over the dog-eared pages of a book resting on her lap. School had been her sanctuary, where each lesson was a step away from her past. The scholarship letter she once clutched so tightly lay framed on the windowsill, a symbol of her relentless pursuit of a brighter future.


The porch light flickered on, casting a warm glow on her face. Her gaze remained fixed on the horizon, where the sun's last rays painted the sky in shades of gold. She smiled—a testament to her journey, to the unwavering determination that carved her path. The sunset whispered of challenges conquered, of dreams reached, and of a past that, despite its scars, had moulded her into a woman of strength and resilience.


That's all well and good, but striking a balance is essential. Not all backstory elements need extensive showing. Some details can be briefly summarised or told when they aren't as important to the character's current journey. Finding the right balance between showing and telling will keep the narrative flowing smoothly without bogging it down with unnecessary details.


Revealing backstory should serve the overall narrative. Only share the most impactful and relevant aspects of the character's past to maintain focus and momentum.


Would You Like to Know More?

(Bonus points if you know - without looking it up - which movie that's a quote from.)


I've created an online, self-paced course for you called Emotional Echoes: The Art of Character Backstory.


For just $47, you'll unlock the secrets to weaving compelling pasts that drive a character's motivations, fears, and desires. From gradual revelation to seamless integration, I help you master the techniques that bring depth to your stories!


Find out more HERE.

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