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Character backstory tips for better writing

Character backstory tips for better writing Character backstory tips for better writing
In this article:

    What is backstory?

    “Backstory,” broadly speaking, is everything that happened before the story opens. When we’re talking about character backstory, we’re talking specifically about the character’s past experiences that shaped them into the person they are when the story opens. Backstory helps your characters feel dimensional, like their decisions and reactions come from somewhere, like they’ve lived lives outside the story’s confines. 

    Keep in mind that backstory exists to serve the narrative. The purpose of backstory is to add dimension and resonance to the front story. You don’t need to make up a whole backstory before you start; it’s fine to build out as you go. Rather than envisioning a character’s whole life, a good starting point for building backstory is to think about two positive and two negative memories that shaped your character. 

    Another great way to think about backstory is to think about what the desired end state for the character is. What backstory creates the greatest number of obstacles to that end state in the front story? If you know what some of your plot events are going to be, you can tinker with your character’s backstory to make those events maximally impactful. 

    If you’re a writer who starts with a really fully formed character and puts together the plot later, you can approach this in the opposite way. Given what you know about your character, what situations or events would be most challenging for them to deal with? 

    Because backstory exists to serve the narrative, you want to make sure you reveal it in a way that is maximally impactful. You can reveal backstory through flashbacks, memories, conversations, overheard dialogue, and significant talismans. However, backstory reveals should never distract from the front story. 

    Don’t open with a flashback

    In general, it’s best to avoid opening your story with a flashback. This locates the initial dramatic tension of the story outside of the story’s present moment–it starts the story in the wrong place. We want the story to start with the hook, not with background detail. 

    Don’t infodump

    While it can be really tempting to give the reader all the background they need in one chunk, your reader is actually less likely to retain something that comes in a big chunk. Breaking it up throughout the story makes it easier to digest and connect to. 

    Do reveal information throughout the story.

    We don’t generally reveal your most traumatic memories to people we just met, so holding back big reveals can increase the sense of intimacy we have with the character. It can also create suspense, to get bits and pieces of backstory and watch it slowly come together. The sense that there is a big piece of information just around the corner is something most readers love, so you can use that to keep tantalizing your readers with new backstory reveals. 

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