Monday, March 27, 2023

How to Make Backstory Work for You

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy 

A character's history is important, but not enough to bog down your entire story to hear it.

Along with adverbs and telling, I think backstory completes the unholy trinity of writing. So much so that agent and writing guru Donald Maass advises writers to cut any backstory in the first 50 pages.

But backstory does have its uses, and sometimes, it's critical to know that history.

Even if it's not critical for the reader to know it.

In some genres it's more of an issue. Fantasy, science fiction, historical—any genre where the past and the history of that past strongly affects the current plot and the motivations of the characters. Doubly so if the antagonist is the one with the past that's come back to haunt someone, since you don't always see the antagonist's POV.
One of my WIPs has a major event that happened decades ago, but this event is the trigger for all the present-day plot events in the story. I knew basically what had happened in the past, but I focused more on what my protagonists were doing/uncovering and chose what parts of the antagonist's plot to use based on them, not what had actually happened.

By the time I was done, I wasn't happy. The mystery part wasn't as strong as I knew it could be, because I hadn't spent enough time on the backstory. If you looked too closely at the plot, things didn't quite line up, and questions were left hanging.

The more you thought about the story, the weaker the story got. Not a good thing.

So I went back and wrote the backstory.

I drafted a rough synopsis that described that past event and what happened. Why the characters did what they did and the ramifications of those actions. When I was done, I did the same thing with my antagonist. Then, I did it with all my major and supporting characters who were involved in it, no matter peripherally. One character was nine years old when this happened, but after doing this, I realized the event had a profound affect on who he was that made his character much richer and more interesting.

That's a lot of summarizing and a lot of backstory, but afterward, I knew how all the pieces fit and those plot events that felt shaky could now be made solid. I knew why folks did what they did in the present day plot, even if they weren't the POV character. I had secrets non-POV characters wanted to avoid, which gave me all kinds of great fodder to use to up the mystery, the tension, and use for plot.

I made this event matter to the present day world and those who lived in it. It wasn't just "something that happened once" anymore.

If you're facing a story with lots of history, try writing out that history. Ask yourself:

What happened in the past and why?

It seems simple, but the act of writing it down forces you to make decisions about details you might not have realized weren't clear. It'll also help you spot any holes or weak logic. Try to go down three levels.

For example:
  • Level 1: Why are they doing the obvious thing? (the plot reason most likely)
  • Level 2: What made them do that thing? (probably the motivating factor from the backstory)
  • Level 3: What made them do that thing? (a solid reason for this to have happened at all. And the most likely culprit of plots that feel a little flimsy when questioned).

How does it affect the current plotline?

Knowing this can help you decide what aspects of your backstory to reveal to readers. The bits that actually matter, not the full history that doesn't advance the story.

Were any of the current characters involved?

If so, what was their role? How do they feel about it? How does it motivate their actions and choices now? This will help make them real people with real motives, even if they're not major players in the story. It'll also give the sense that things are going on in the world and it's not all about your main characters. Supporting players have lives, even when off screen.

How do the POV characters feel about it?

If your POV characters weren't involved (or don't know about it) odds are they're trying to figure it out in some way. That might even be the goal of the book or a subplot. What do they know? What do they think they know, but have wrong? What parts are they trying to solve, but uncover something totally unexpected?


Knowing the backstory can help you plot twists and turns and surprise the reader in ways that make sense and feel grounded.

It'll also make it easier for you to plot when, where, and how they discover information, especially if other characters hold the key to any of that information. You'll know exactly who knows what, why they may or may not talk about, and how badly they'd want to keep (or reveal) that knowledge.

Backstory gets a bad rap, but when you think about it, it's the motivating factor behind your characters, and characters are what drives your story. You need the backstory to create rich and proactive characters. So why not write it all on its own? It keeps it out of the story, allows you to explore the history that captured your interest, and helps you craft a story and characters with depth.

How much does backstory affect your current WIP? How much have you put into the story? Do you feel it's too much? Too little? Have you tried writing it out separately? 

*Originally published January 2012. Last updated March 2023.

Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Thanks Janice, I'm going to try this. My hero has a huge backstory that totally informs what he's doing in the plot and I've been worried I'm not revealing things at the right time or that it won't hold up to scrutiny. Will try this...

  2. I have been working on my NaNoWriMo 1st draft of around 70,000 words using beat-sheets a la "Nail Your Novel" by Roz Morris.

    That has shown that there is far too much backstory in the first two chapters, which I can cut drastically but show backstory throughout the work showing (not telling) through the thoughts of FMC and her and other characters' words and actions. Little pieces can now be placed quite naturally throughout the story without it being an overwhelming amount of information.

    But I agree with you and have written the backstory of all characters down. If it needs to be used directly in the next draft, then it can be but, by having a separate Character's Backstory doc, nothing vital will be forgotten and much of that information helps greatly with characterisation and 'fleshing out'.

    Great article... thank you!

  3. I am a huge fan of writing the sort of novels where there was this big, awful event in the main character's (and most of the supporting characters) past that they are currently trying to come to grips with. Sometimes it's just conflict keeping them from being who they want to be, and sometimes it effects the story world.

    Like you, in the beginning I never figured out the details, but quickly realized it's hard to come up with that stuff on the fly and have it really matter. So I have long backstories now, that mostly don't make it into the book, but help me write it.

    The question you ask yourself are pure gold. I usually sort of wing how to use this wealth of information and sometimes it turns out okay, and sometimes not. This will be extremely helpful! Thanks!

  4. You are so good at breaking things down. Great post!

    I do write the back story down. I hadn't thought about all the ramifications like you mention here, but I found that I can write a better story when I know what really happened before.

  5. Depends on the story and depends on the character :)

    One WIP jumps back and forth between three times, the present day, the Thursday evening before, and a party 6 months previous.

    Another WIP is devoid of all history except for a 1 paragraph 'summary'. There may be tiny mentions thrown in, but the character doesn't dwell on the past at all. It happened, nothing can be changed, so we're moving on, that kind of attitude.

    I have written backstory out in a separate file for more complicated works. I agree, doing that really helps keep all the facts straight.

    Great post!

  6. Totally agree with this advice. I am working on a small town piece with lots of side characters and motivations. I had to do exactly what you did to make it all come together. But it's all the tiny attention to detail that makes the story richer, more believable. This is, I think, one of those major writer realizations that really improve your craft. Not everything you write will or even should be in the final manuscript, but it still needed to be written.

  7. My entire fantasy series is founded by a series of events that happened in the past.

    I do have a vague feeling about what happened, but I know that I should start writing it down.

    The thing is, so much happened that I'm a little scared to.

  8. My WIP does not have a backstory as such, but it does cover a period of fifty years. Comments I received on my first draft suggested that it needed more depth and the suggestion that I write profiles of each of the main characters and what happens to them during their lives and especially at those points where they cross paths. This forces decisions to be made on how they change over time - particularly the age they are at key plot points. You gain considerable insight into each of them and may help determine how they will react.

    Good post, Janice.

  9. Backstory is the run up to the edge between two tall buildings. The story is the leap across. Without that run there is no energy, no momentum to get across and it falls. Flat.

    The trick is to introduce backstory through current revelation. The reader learns new information with the character and as they connect the pieces they know with the new they bring it out, not directly but through implication. Which is how real people tend to handle the back stories of their own real world drama's (you know x from years ago, they did y and now we are able to determine z).

    Great post, Janice.

  10. My WIP doesn't have a lot of backstories. I seem to imply a lot with "Noodle Incidents" (hmm, that should be an article). I have a little too much exposition with the magic system though, but we don't receive a lot of back-story on the characters until near the end.

    I recently read a book ("Virals" by Kathy Reichs. Anyone read it?) which had so much back-story during the beginning, I steamed about it and would have abandoned the book if I got it from the library.

    Fortunately, it gets better once it's out of the way and the pace picks up, but the present tense exposition with the past tense scenes almost killed it for me. I'm still considering ways how the backstory could've been handled better.

  11. I've been in love with back-story ever since I read Watership Down, with all that juicy mythology bleeding into the present.

    I do like your point about how backstory affects everyone, not just the MC. I've recently realized I need to work on motivation for my secondary characters. This sounds like an excellent way to go about it.

  12. Great post, and so true! It's always bizarre how much authority my writing takes on once I've actually described the backstory for myself. Everything takes on the tint of the backstory.

    I keep a funny little file where I jot down backstory as I discover it, and as the puzzle pieces accumulate, I automatically start connecting them. This has helped me a LOT--having all the pieces in one place keeps me consistent even before I know exactly how they relate.


  13. Angelaaquarles, sounds like this is a perfect technique for you :) Hope it serves you well.

    Heather, Roz has great tips. Sometimes you have to write it to figure it out. That's what first drafts are for ;)

    Elizabeth, I tend to write stories like that to. Sounds like we had similar journeys here.

    Janet, thanks! It really does influence you more than you think. I think that's why so many writers put it in there. Instinctively they know it matters.

    1000th Monkey, absolutely. If there's nothing in the past that affects the story there's no reason to worry about it. Or if it jumps around like you mentioned. Not all tips apply to all stories :)

    Amy, exactly. It might even be one of those steps that moves you from one stage to another.

    Misha, if it scares you, totally go for it. I bet you'll discover all kinds of amazing things to do with your story you never thought of before when you're done.

    Lynn, that sounds like good advice. It's hard to know how a character will act or why if you're not sure how they got to that point in their lives.

    Gene, love that analogy.

    Chihuahua0, I like that, noodle incidents. I think I called them breadcrumbs in an older post. Magic is tough because you often have to explain more than you typically would.

    Chicory, good backstory makes a world feel richer. Bad backstory bogs it down. When done well it can really add to a novel. Hope this helps with your secondaries!

    Creative A, that's a great idea. I take a lot of notes myself, and it's very helpful to have it all in one spot like that.

  14. Thank you for this post Janice. You do have a way of making even the basic things much more clear. I did a brief profile on my main character, but never really anything on the backstory for the main event of my protag's "issue" or the others that may have been there. I am going to try this. I can already feel a revelation coming on!

  15. My biggest problem with backstory is that I have a hard time deciding what should be backstory and what should be story. I can't decide if it's cheating to start when my main character has already been through a lot that has made her who she is, or if I should start from the beginning and show how she became who she is, even though that's not where the big part of the story is. Sadly, this is the sort of thing that keeps me up at night.

    1. Might I recommend a good post from Patricia C. Wrede on carving out a bit of plot from a bigger life story:

  16. Marti, aw, thanks. Good luck with your main character's history!

    Allison, today's (Mon, Jan 9th) post might help with that. Knowing where to start usually goes hand in hand with knowing where you're ending. What's the core conflict of your novel? The big problem your protag is trying to solve? Once you know that, you can look back to the moment when your protag first uncovers that problems. You typically start right about there.

    The backstory might be necessary, or it might be the things that happened that made your character who they are. If that backstory doesn't directly affect and move the plot, odds are it can stay in the back and not wind up in the story.

  17. Janice, thanks for sharing this plan of action, because as you know, this drives me bonkers a lot!

    This road map's saving my new novel. Thanks for sharing it.


  18. Taurean, so glad it helped!

  19. This is incredibly helpful! Thank you!

  20. Great Post! In one of my WIP(The one I work on when I need a break from the other) one of my MC has a lot of backstory that all ends up connecting and explaining a lot. I often find myself caught up in this subplot so much that I lose track of the main idea of the overall story.


    1. I love that you have a "break WIP." That's a great idea. It'll be fun to see how that one ends up--is the backstory a critical subplot, or is it something to need to figure out so you can then write the full story?

  21. I need to weave in some backstory for my current WIP. I'll be using this post to help me fill it out. My protagonist is as bad as the antagonist who also needs backstory. I'm not sure if I should do them seperately or together. (A mother and daughter)

    1. I hope it helps. Backstory is bits and pieces you add to the scenes, it's not a scene or anything like that (that's a flashback). You'd just add it where it makes sense and flows with the scene of whatever character you need it for.

  22. Hmmm, I agree with the premise but Lesser-known authors such as Stephen King, Dan Simmons, Dan Brown, Danielle Steel, JK Rowling as well as Charles Dickens, Shakespeare and a host of others may disagree with you. I believe this is a modern thought where people have short attention spans these days. Piffle I say. Some will have short attention spans, others will read. It has always been so. It is, as it was, as it always will be, no matter what the medium.

    1. I doubt they'd disagree. This is just a tool for handling backstory, and it will work for some writers and some books, and not be right for others. There's no one way to write, and every writer has to choose how they want to tell their stories.