Tuesday, March 03, 2020

The Importance of Backstory (Or How the Brain Connects the Present to the Past)

backstory, creating emotional wounds, writing strong characters
By Kassandra Lamb, @KassandraLamb

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Your character's emotional reactions stem from their backstories, and when those don't mesh, reader disconnects can happen. Kassandra Lamb explains how the brain can help us write stronger character backstories. 

Kassandra Lamb is a retired psychotherapist/ psychology professor turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington Mysteries and the Marcia Banks and Buddy Cozy Mysteries, plus a non-fiction guidebook, Someday is Here! A Beginner’s Guide to Writing and Publishing Your First Book. She also writes romantic suspense under the pen name of Jessica Dale.

Her specialty as a psychotherapist was trauma recovery, and today she brings us her insights into how the brain connects our past to our present, and the implications for writers regarding characters’ back stories.

Website | Twitter | Facebook | Pinterest | Bookbub Profile | Goodreads

Take it away Kassandra…

A brief excerpt from my own backstory—I recently let go of someone whom I have loved dearly my entire life. I did so because he was acting in a way that was far too reminiscent of my dysfunctional family.

I spent many hours and beaucoup dollars in my youth on therapy, and it was successful. For a very long time now, I’ve hardly given a thought to all that craziness I grew up with. So when this person, after experiencing a highly emotional event, suddenly began acting like his crazy father (the brother of my crazy father), I had to make a tough choice.

I contemplated letting it slide for the sake of family peace, but I repeatedly found my stomach, chest and throat tightening up in a very uncomfortable way. It took me awhile to sort out that this was the same uncomfortable feeling I’d had all too often as a child—a combination of confusion, fear and hurt.

Why am I telling you this sad story? Because it provides some excellent examples of the connections that I’m about to explain—between our minds, our bodies, and our emotions—and between the past and present.

(Here's more on Brainstorming Your Character's Emotional Wound)

How Our Brains Connect Us to the Past

Some people still scoff, to this day, at the idea that our past affects our present and future reactions. But there is actually a scientific explanation for how this works.

There is a part of the brain called the hippocampus. It is a component of the limbic system, located between the cerebral cortex (the thinking part of our brain) and the brain stem (the part that controls automatic functions, like breathing).

Wikimedia Commons 

The limbic system, comprised of several structures and organs, is the emotional center of the human brain. One of the hippocampus’s most important functions, as part of this system, is processing memories. And right next door is the amygdala, the part of the brain that feels anger and fear, and produces our instinctive knee-jerk reactions to those feelings.

The hippocampus not only processes memories—without it, we would have no long-term memory—but it also remembers the emotions (and the physical sensations associated with those emotions) of past events.

Emotions—Good, Bad and Indifferent

Some past events felt good because they met our needs. As we approach similar events, we may feel excitement bubbling in our chests. Our hippocampus is anticipating that this will be another good experience.

Some past events neither met our needs nor felt bad. So, as we approach such events in the present, we may feel bored.

And then some current events, as we anticipate and/or experience them, feel bad. Our chests or stomachs may tense up, be filled with butterflies of anxiety, or feel queasy.

But on the surface, these current events may not seem bad. Nonetheless, some aspect of the situation is reminding our hippocampus of a past negative experience, and it is producing the bodily sensations and emotions associated with that past event. 

(Here's more on Crafting Emotion: The Importance of Matching Actions To Feelings)

Instantaneous Rolodex of Emotions for the Sake of Survival

What is so amazing about the hippocampus is that it flips back through past experiences at lightning speed and makes multiple connections from past events to the present situation.

Why does it do this? To help us survive. Pretty much all of our instinctive physical and psychological responses are designed to keep us alive long enough to have children and preserve the species.

So the hippocampus reproduces the internal physical sensations/emotions of past experiences that are similar to the current situation to guide us to either embrace or avoid that situation, depending on how well that past event predicts this one will meet our needs or harm us.

But those emotions may or may not seem rational in the here-and-now.

Implications for Writers

Kassandra Lamb
We, as writers, strive to have the reader experience the emotions of our characters, in an up-close and personal way. We often do this by describing the physical sensations they are experiencing to “show” the reader the emotion. (Otherwise known as deep point of view.)

But we need to go beyond that. We need to gradually show, throughout the character’s emotional arc, the reasons for those feelings.

First of all, we need to give our characters backstories that match their current neuroses. Any time that a character overreacts (or under-reacts) to a situation in the present, there has to be something in their past that explains it.

As a psychologist, when I read a novel, I become totally frustrated when the characters’ backstories don’t fit psychologically with their current reactions and behaviors. For example, psychopaths never come from “normal” homes (although they might look normal on the surface).

So we need to do our research about what histories cause what issues in the present. A great resource to help with this is the Facebook group, Trauma Fiction*. Also, a good casebook, designed to supplement an abnormal psychology textbook, can give you some ideas (type “abnormal casebook” into the Amazon search box).

(*This group is for writers and addresses both physical and psychological injuries.)

(Here's more on The Dysfunctional Home Your Flawed Character Was Raised In)

A Word or Two About Behavior

Not only will we react emotionally to present events based on the past, but the behaviors we exhibit in response to those situations are also likely to be those we used in the past. And the more stressful the current situation, the more likely we are to revert to past behaviors, whether they will work in the here-and-now or not.

I believe this is what happened to my family member. His role model growing up was a very angry father, and he used anger himself as a defense mechanism, with a chaser of rationalization (also learned from his father). As an adult, he recognized that the anger wasn’t always productive, and he worked on controlling it better. He succeeded most of the time.

Then he developed a life-threatening disease and had to undergo a difficult surgery to deal with it. Staring death in the face is no easy thing. He came out the other end of that experience having reverted to the angry, self-justifying person of his youth.

Another example would be a battered woman who has trouble standing up for herself. I’m oversimplifying here; there are many reasons why it is so hard for a battered woman to leave her batterer. But one of those reasons often is that she learned to be submissive and appeasing as a child, growing up herself in an abusive environment.

Those behaviors were, indeed, her best bet for survival as a kid, where she believed she had no other options. If she didn’t fight back, if she made nice-nice, her abuser would be more likely to calm down and stop hurting her.

But as an adult, this behavior doesn’t work over the long haul. And she does have other options, but she’s been trained to believe that she doesn’t. The thought of leaving brings up the same childhood terror that she won’t be able to survive on her own—a natural fear that kids experience when they think they are losing their parents. 

(Here's more on Once More, With Feeling: Writing Emotionally Strong Characters)

What to Do With the Backstory

First, we need to have it clear in our own heads, as the writer of the story. This is one place where even pantsers like myself should do at least some planning. What are our characters’ emotional wounds and what is the back story that explains them?

Then we need to reveal that backstory to the reader. There are several approaches to this—telling/showing most of it early on, weaving it into the story as we go along, mainly dropping hints along the way with a big reveal near the end, etc.

I won’t go into detail about these; that would be the topic for another whole post. There are pros and cons of each, and potential pitfalls. But we should intentionally pick the approach that suits our story best.

How much does the reader need to know to “get” why the character is acting/feeling the way they are? Do you want a certain character to come across as totally whacko (a highly technical psychological term, btw)? Or as a normal person with emotional wounds like the rest of us, or somewhere in between?

Will a big backstory reveal near the end enhance or distract from the rest of the climactic elements?

What I would warn against is withholding too much of the backstory. That may just leave the reader feeling that your characters are crazy, unlikeable, and/or unrealistic. And if you only drop hints along the way, and never give them enough pieces to put together the big picture, they may feel cheated at the end. 

(Here's more on Revealing a Character's Past Without Falling Into Backstory)

Nightmares, Flashbacks and Thoughts, Oh My!

These are all ways that we can show the reader the character’s backstory, the “why” of their emotional reactions.

For example, when a character is over-reacting to a situation, we can have them wonder internally why they’re having such an intense reaction. (Note: only with characters who are fairly intelligent and self-aware.) Or we can portray them as suddenly having trouble focusing, because they are distracted by emotions that are out of proportion to the current event.

And obviously, we can use nightmares and mental flashbacks to show the backstory events. But if you want to be more subtle about it, here are some ideas.

Dreams are often symbolic, so we can have the past events represented this way—such as a wild animal chasing them and they hide in a cave, to represent the abusive parent they hid from in their closet as a child.

Also, flashbacks can come in other forms besides visual. People can have emotional flashbacks and/or “body memories.”

An emotional flashback is more than just a clenched stomach because some old fear has been triggered. The person is feeling the emotions of a past trauma as intensely, or close to it, as they felt them at the time. In other words, they are overwhelmed by the feelings.

But they may or may not realize that those feelings are from the past, because the images of the past events are absent. An emotional flashback may be mislabeled as a panic attack. People with anger control problems may also be unknowingly experiencing emotional flashbacks.

A person can also experience just the intense body sensations of a past trauma, without the other components of a full-blown flashback. These are often referred to, in the trauma recovery field, as body memories.

And the sensations may not just be related to the emotions. They may be actual physical experiences from the past event. For example, I have had more than one client with unexplained chronic back or stomach pain, who experienced a miraculous relief from that pain after working through a traumatic memory in which they were physically hurt—in a manner similar to the pain they had been feeling in the present. One example would be lower back pain that turns out to be related to being beaten in that area as a child.

These other types of flashbacks and/or symbolic dreams can be used initially to drop hints, before revealing the character’s memory of the actual event.

What brought this topic to mind for me was the need to do a little planning for a new police procedural series. The main character was a secondary character in a previous series, not important enough to need a backstory for her very private, guarded personality.

But now she definitely needs one. I’ve decided on the central trauma, and I’m thinking the approach I’ll be going with is dropping hints with a big reveal at the end. I’ve even thought of a few ways to present some of those hints.

And that’s about all the pre-planning my pantser mind can tolerate. It’s time to start writing!

About Someday Is Here!: A Beginner’s Guide to Writing and Publishing Your First Book

This easy-to-read, how-to guide is full of both practical advice and emotional support. Psychotherapist turned successful mystery writer, Kassandra Lamb walks alongside novice writers on their journey to become published authors, pointing out pitfalls along the way, some of which she discovered through stumbled-head-first-into-them experience. A must-read for new authors who aren’t sure what they’re getting themselves into.


  1. Thank you so much, Janice, for hosting me at Fiction University today!

  2. Thank you, Kassandra. Such insightful and useful information. Much appreciated!

    1. You're welcome. Glad you found it helpful!

  3. Glad you found it useful, Kirsten!