Friday, March 1, 2013


Backstory is important. REALLY important. It sets the stage for your characters and makes them who they are. It shows you why they are to be pitied, gives them loveable personalities, or legitimate reason to be scared to death of what’s going on in the world. Every character will have their own backstory, with its own purpose.

How do you create a backstory?
Take a look at your character. Do they have weaknesses? Desires? Do they understand something so deeply it’s uncanny? Pull them out of their shells and figure out why they have these traits. And create a story about it. Is Miguel terrified of escalators? Perhaps he tripped and fell out of one once. Does Brianna evidence strength, when we know she is not? Maybe she was hurt before and tries to protect herself by pretending to be strong.

Backstory as a history.

There is also the side of backstory that creates a better comprehension of the setting, the personality, or the way the character interacts with others.

It is usually slipped in during a part of the story where things won’t make sense unless you KNOW why a character is doing something or love/hates another character. And it will be important for the rest of the story. 

EXAMPLE of backstory being slipped into the present story: from In the Shadow, my current WIP.

Ancient Rome, during the reign of Emperor Nero.
Two slaves, Cyrus and Merrie, whispering together in the dark of the stable.
Cyrus is trying to convince Merrie to share important information she has learned with their master. Merrie is scared to death of their master and doesn’t want to do it.

Pinned Image

Word count: 415
© Pure Grace

Cyrus’s hand felt cold against her shoulder.
“It is the only way. You must see that! If you cannot go to Messalina and you do not want to speak to Claudia, you have to go to their father.”
Merrie’s breath streamed out and fogged in the damp stable air. “It won’t work,” she protested.
“You just have to try. Trust me. Very little works in Rome, when you are a slave.”
Merrie glanced at him sharply. He had not spoken like that in a long time. Almost since she had met him. She still remember the day he had been dragged into the Antistius courtyard, rough, angry, his raggedly uneven black hair blown over his forehead and into his eyes, wrists bound behind him, a spitting, red-hot flame burning in his eyes. She had been with Messalina, preparing to go to a party, and their litter was late. She had watched silently as he fought against the men who struggled to haul him toward the center of the courtyard, where Kaderus awaited them. Then one of the men struck Cyrus, sprawling him on his face. Blood gushed from his nose. Merrie had seen enough. Grey eyes large with distress, she had sprung away from Messalina and skidded to her knees beside the wild boy, covering his head and shoulders with her body.
“Out of the way, child!” one of the men shouted at her.
“Don’t hurt him!” she plead, helping him to his knees.
“Hotheads will get what they deserve. We will deal with him.”
“He won’t cause any more trouble.” She had looked up into Cyrus’s eyes and watched the flame slowly flicker, fighting against her, and then gently give up.
“Nay,” he had whispered huskily. “I won’t cause any more trouble.”
She had helped him to his feet, wiped his bloodied face and elbows with her clean sash, and then skipped back to Messalina, feeling light and exultant inside. His eyes had trailed her until one of the men prodded him in the ribs, reminding him to move. From that day on, they had been best friends.
“You just have to try,” Cyrus leaned back in the hay, wincing slightly as a straw pricked him. “It is your only chance.”
Merrie paused, trying to make sense of the mixed fear and longing inside her. She wanted to tell someone, so badly! Yet she dreaded facing Antistius. The darkness pressed around her. She stood up and planted her feet. “What you say is impossible.”

Backstory can be very pretty. It can impact you and help you feel more familiar the character. It can leave you feeling grief for them, make you relate to their anger, dig deep in your heart, or cause you to laugh at their outrageous stupidity.

But it can also be used unwisely. It can tell too much, solve too many plot intrigues, and explain more of the characters faults or virtues than need to be yet known. Sometimes too much is explained away too early and there is no more desire to read because we have all the answers about why the character is behaving the way they are.

Personally, I love a good backstory. I enjoy learning about the characters and feeling more akin to what is going on. I really like backstory that draws me into the character, and makes me wish things hadn’t happened, or at least happened differently, even though you can’t change them {and you know it’s just a story and can’t help wishing it had ended up different}. Stories such as Katniss’s father in The Hunger Games. You hate the fact that he died. When you read slips of the past slide between passages of compelling story, you cannot help but feel the depth of meaning behind what is happening.

How to construct backstory.

First of all, you have to feel the need. Is something missing from your character? Is there a trait that is unexplained or a part of the story void?

Then you need to decide what kind of backstory will fill it. Do you want the readers to be saddened by what happened? Confused? Maybe angry? Or maybe you need them to laugh. Create the backstory according to your hole.

A few weeks ago, I was editing a portion of In the Shadow. I was in chapter 17 {over half-way through the book!} and reached a place where a character was telling his own backstory. The purpose for the story was to make my MC feel a greater contempt for another character and a consuming pity for the storyteller. The backstory was neither compelling nor humorous. I ditched it, did my research, and came up with a story that is powerful, frustrating, and breathtaking. Something that will leave you in as many tears as the MC. {But I can’t share it, or else I will spoil too much. ;)}

Where to put your backstory.

Most of the time backstory will flow out of the story itself. When that moment arises that you need an explanation or emotion for your characters OR readers, it will just fit in. But other times, you may already have a backstory planned for your character and just pitching it in will confuse the reader. It will feel like a misfit and as much a throw in as it is.

First, decide what the backstory fulfills. What is its purpose? Why is it necessary? Then find out where in the story that need arises. Where does the character face that need? That will be the place to put it.

Making backstory captivating.

The best way to make your backstory interesting is to interrupt it. Fling the reader into the middle of a great history and then cut it off short by springing them back to the present. So, just as they get to the reason for the character’s pain, or distrust, or any other purpose for the backstory, it is cut off and unanswered. Not only will they be frustrated fascinated, but they are going to want to know what happened and why, how it was solved and who did it…and keep reading.

And that of course, is every writer’s goal. ;)

Because backstory is so important, it has to be done well. Be careful about what you chose to put in and where. In most cases, you can feel safe in taking more out than leaving more in. Too much story can destroy the book. Too little? It might confuse your readers, but it will not take away from the story.
I hope you have fun creating your backstories!


  1. Backstory's tricky, isn't it? I've done some pretty impressive backstory dumps that would have made the most paitent reader fall asleep, I think. ;) At the moment, I'm going through and making backstories for all my main characters. Half the time, they probably won't even come in the book. Funnily enough, I'm having the most trouble with my MC's. Go figure.

  2. That was really well put! I think you covered everything so well. Backstory MURDERS me (in the dark alley, seriously, dark). I either don't say anything or say too much or...throw it all! I love it when backstory is added in a compelling way. Suzanne Collins did it brilliantly (gee, why does she get to be so amazing??). After all this, Miss, I expect your characters' backstories will be AMAZING. :P

    1. Except for Peeta's insta backstory... that one was kind of up front and not very subtle with the bread scene... we'll forgive her. :)

    2. And Prim's goat. I still kind of don't care about Prim's goat...(don't huuurt me!). But I do care about Buttercup. Like, a lot.

  3. Awesome. :D I'm working on a back story right now and this helped so high five!

  4. I love backstory, but sometimes it's a bit tricky to integrate effectively, or to know when it's warranted. Personally, I like to plan out a LOT of backstory - it comes with part of the worldbuilding - so I have it at my disposal to refer to, both to avoid plot holes and inconsistencies, but also to work into the story to make it more evocative and interesting. Relevancy, though, is a key issue, as it's not always easy to determine when it is or not.

    Fantastic post, though - really helpful and informative! :D