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Tuesday, January 19

Dealing With Backstory in a Series

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I had another thought on backstory and sequels over the weekend. In a regular novel, we usually describe our protag and jot down who they are and how they got to be that way. They all enter the story with back story baggage, and we slip that in as we write. But a protag in a series has extra baggage to carry, because we do mean things to them over the course of the series. And since that is connected to plot, all those events become important.

Because I just wrote a post on backstory, I approached my protag, Nya, differently this time. I pretended Nya was a brand new character and thought about what her back story was now.

In The Shifter, she was the orphaned girl who lost her parents in a failed war for independence.

In Blue Fire, she was the orphaned girl who lost her parents in a failed war for independence and because of that did some really dumb things to save her sister and caused all kinds of trouble for herself she now had to deal with. (see why book two was so much harder than one?)

In Darkfall, I described Nya as the person she was at the start of this book. She's different now. She still has the same history, is still the war orphan. Has the same troubles. But the back story driving her this book is new.

And that's the big thing to remember. Backstory isn't about the character's history. It's about the experiences that shaped their lives and make them act the way they do. Backstory affecting motivation feels natural because it has a place in the story. It matters to the things the reader cares about. You want to mention the stuff that's driving them to act, not the stuff that happened that only affected plot.

Once I figured out Nya's new backstory, I went and did it for all my other characters. It's easy to forget about secondary characters, so they often stay static as characters. They don't always grow like your protag, or they just grow a teeny bit. But taking a look at the kind of person they are now versus their first introduction made it pretty darn clear how much has happened to them and how that's affected them. They're going to be richer characters because of this.

Naturally, there will be plot backstory that will have to go in there, but it's now part of the world building and can be handled as such. That's easier to get in when I don't have to force it into character stuff. And the character stuff I do have, is all coming from a place of story relevance.


  1. I'm not writing a series, strictly speaking, but some of your back story tips still apply.

    I want to say thank you for posting your technique on structure a while back. I've found it very helpful when approaching my revisions. I've passed your post on to a number of my writer friends.

  2. Great thoughts, Janice! I really like that insight about what's driving the character to act being most important. I entirely agree.

  3. Great post. I really like the insight that the backstory that's relevant to different books in a series is different for each book. It's like how the character grows differently in each book. That does make sense to me. I can't wait to read book #2 & #3 in your series to see how you show this in your story.