Writing Characters With Great Backstories (Without the Backstory)

As an editor, I get to bear witness to all kinds of writing pitfalls. (In fact, I have a post series dedicated to that planned for the near future.) But one of the most prevalent, by far, revolves around divulging exposition — especially of the backstory variety. There are varying degrees of offense, but my personal favorite (and by “favorite”, I really mean eye-roll inducing, hair-pulling, editing nightmare) is when writers feel the need to divulge a character’s entire, complicated life story in the first chapter. Why is that bad? Well, think of it like this: your first chapter is the reader’s introduction to your character. So in real life, it would be like meeting someone for the first time and having them word vomit their life story all over you. What kind of impression does that leave? Yeah, I bet you’d avoid that person like the plague after that.

I can already hear the murmurs of confusion and disagreement.

“But, we have to make sure our characters feel well-rounded and real,” you say, “We don’t want them to feel like cardboard cut-outs or Mary Sues.”

You’re 100% right. But you can do that without resorting to the word vomit introduction. How? Well, that’s what I’m here to show you. 😉
 

Step 1: Creating Backstory

 
Before you can begin to write a well-rounded character, you have to actually make them well-rounded. You need to know that person intimately. They need to be real — as real as your best friend from high school, or your quirky aunt with the 82 cats who lives in a motor home. The best way to do that is by making what’s known as a character profile. (There are tons of templates available online, but this one is particularly thorough.) Document all those tiny little details and experiences that make your character who they are. Don’t just stick to the superficial details, like eye color and body type, but really get to know them.

How’d they get that scar on their right knee?

Who was their first crush, and who broke their heart for the first time?

What’s their strange nightly ritual? And why do they keep that weird nick-knack on their bookshelf?

In a separate document, flesh out your character from top to bottom. Until, like an actor, you can step into their skin and write with their voice. This process is as essential to your novel as plotting is, so don’t skimp. You’ll need to do this for every major character, and, to some extent, the supporting cast as well. You’ll see why here shortly.
 

Step 2: Writing as Character X

 
By now, you should have pages and pages of notes. You’ve created all these exciting experiences and nuances that shape your character’s personality, and you can’t wait to share them all with the world. Right? Wrong. This is where pet peeve #208 (listed above) comes in. Writers assume that since they’ve created all this material, they need to use it. That it’s a disservice to their character not to, and that stuffing every minute detail into their novel is the only way they’ll be able to illustrate just how intricate this person’s life is. But guess what? We’re all intricate, complicated people. And we don’t care that you’ve managed to create another one.

Your character spent 8 months backpacking through Europe three years before the events of chapter 1? Great. Who cares?

Your character has a great grandmother who can bake the world’s best pot roast, but who died ten years before the events of the story? Okay. Sad, but so what?

Your character’s favorite childhood dog only had three legs, but could run like a greyhound? Weird and slightly interesting, but what does it have to do with the story?

My point is, unless one of these anecdotes or facts has a direct affect on the current plot, it doesn’t make it into the book. Why did you just waste hours writing all of that, then? Because, even though it’ll never be stated outright, it will color the way your character reacts to any given situation. Essentially, by creating that profile, you built their “voice”. Every experience we go through changes our fundamental outlook on life and will have a subtle affect on the way we behave, the things we say, and even our perception of a situation. That’s the definition of personality. It’s a reaction filtered through our individual set of traits and life experiences, and is what makes each of us unique.

For example, the character with the three-legged dog is likely to be compassionate toward animals as well as people who are differently-abled. While someone without that particular backstory may be callous and insensitive to the needs of others. The person with the grandma may have a certain affinity for pot roast, reacting to it much differently than someone who’s, say, a vegetarian. And depending on how your character got the scar on their knee, they may have an ingrained fear of something that makes absolutely no sense to anyone else.

It’s the history behind the character that makes them feel real. Even if we never hear the story of every experience, we’ll respond to that feeling of depth, of fullness. It’s not about creating a detailed biography of these fictional people, it’s about making them feel human so readers can connect with them. So go ahead and create those elaborate backstories, but remember, 90% of it will never be used outright in your book. And that’s okay. The authenticity you’ll be able to create for having done this exercise will far outweigh the “wasted” time you put into it. Because, at the end of the day, fiction is nothing without its characters.
 

Step 3: Murder Your Exposition

 
(I make that sound so dramatic, don’t I?)

Exposition has its place, but rarely is it needed as much as writers imagine. Storytelling is about conflict and emotion. And, as they say, “show, don’t tell” whenever possible. Exposition is telling at its worst. It’s that irritating person that walks into the room while you’re trying to watch a movie and forces you to press pause in order to pay attention to them. It breaks whatever action you have happening and says, “look at this irrelevant bit of info” instead. Which is why your final mission for this lesson is to go through your manuscript, find any spot where you stuck a random memory or some other detail from their past, and ask yourself, “Does this really need to be here?” I guarantee, the majority of the time, the answer will be no.

You can convey a lot of backstory simply through subtext and the way the character reacts to the environment and situation around them. Sometimes it is necessary to supply the details, the history, but even then, exposition is rarely the key. Try to find some other way to divulge it whenever possible. Dialogue (although never use dialogue as a convenient vehicle for giving the reader information as it will instantly feel false and unnatural), inner monologues, passing comments, etc. Flashbacks are even preferable to straight info-dump exposition. But if you do have to resort to a flashback, make sure that your character is in an appropriate situation for one. Don’t halt the middle of a battle to have them daydream about how they received a commendation for whatever umpteen years ago. If you do that, congratulations, your character is now dead. Because, while he was standing there daydreaming, the guy he was fighting lobbed his head off.

Once you’ve identified your exposition, strip it out wherever you can. Read the chapter, paragraph, sentence, without it. Does removing it in any way change the clarity of the message? If the answer is yes, then weave it back in, but only as much as necessary. If the answer’s no, bravo! You successfully killed a bit of exposition. And if you just aren’t sure, well, that’s why editors exist. Be ready, though, because they’ll be the first to go after your exposition with a butcher knife.

So, in summary, (since I seem to have rambled more than normal in this post) great characters require equally great backstories. But great writers know when and where to divulge that information, relying heavily on the subtleties of voice and subtext to convey the majority of it. Do they have journals full of notes and character profiles and unpublished material? You bet! How much of that creeps into their actual books? Maybe 10%. But you feel its existence. The work feels authentic, the characters real. Follow in the footsteps of those writers and show us your character without resorting to a word vomit introduction. Readers (and editors) will greatly appreciate it. 😉

10 thoughts on “Writing Characters With Great Backstories (Without the Backstory)

  1. I’d love to have you go at my MS with a butcher’s knife!
    Joke – well, I think so. But seriously, it’s so hard to do this to your own manuscript. It’s not impossible but we are all so close to our own work that this is incredibly difficult to do.
    I have pages of notes on my characters, but even now I find myself adding to them. They sometimes surprise me with their actions even if I think I know everything about them!
    Great post, and very useful ways to work.
    Melody

    • Thanks, Melody!

      You’re 100% right about the difficulty of editing your own work for stuff like this. My best advice for that is to make sure you give yourself time away from the manuscript before trying to edit it. If you stuff it in a drawer (proverbial, of course) for about a month, you should be able to read through it with an objective eye. That time away allows you to reset your perspective, to take off the rose-colored glasses of creation and see it closer to the way readers (or editors) will. 😉

  2. This is great information and something that I really do struggle with. During content edits for my first book my editor nixed nearly a thousand words of info dump. And the story was stronger for it.

  3. I always regale complete strangers with my life-story as soon as I meet them – is that wrong?? 😀 I think my writing tends the other way to be honest – very little backstory. Which now explains why some of the characters feel like they’ve just popped along to make a point then wandered off again. Interesting post Kisa, thanks.

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