Backstory. We hear that word a lot as writers. So just what is backstory?
In a few words, it’s your characters’ history. Something that happened to them in the past that shapes their present state of being, but that doesn’t directly relate to the story you are telling. Backstory is a tricky thing. It’s necessary in many ways because it provides such in depth detail on your character. At the same time, if not properly told, it can be boring, because it isn’t immediate. So how can you add backstory to your novel without boring your readers to tears? Here are just a few methods:
- Putting Backstory in a Prologue
A prologue immediately throws backstory out there so the reader understands the character’s motivation from the get go. This should be done sparingly and with caution since, if not done well, it can be viewed as the dreaded “info dump”. Usually you add a prologue if you want to create immediate emotion, such as empathy for a hero who will at first be somewhat unlikeable. If your reader is introduced to the hero as an asshole, she’ll find him difficult to like. But if she knows through a prologue that he’s an asshole because his wife and only child were brutally murdered, the reader is more likely to want to see him redeemed.
- Introducing Backstory Along the Way
This technique raises questions as the story goes on and allows the reader to guess as to the character’s motivation before being told, piece by piece, what the reasons for his or her actions are. Usually this is done by having one character reveal something to another: the hero confesses his dark past, or the heroine confesses her traumatic childhood.
- Using Flashbacks
This technique uses memories of the past, usually revealed in several flashes over time. The character “relives” the past event. There should be a good reason for the character having a flashback, usually because of some present event that reminds him or her of the past.
Do you have a favorite technique for getting (or for you writers, giving) backstory?
I think a flashback can be very effective when done well, since it actually forces a character to relive the past incident. It’s a showing rather than a telling. But sprinkling backstory throughout a novel is my personal favorite, because it allows the author to raise question after question, keeping readers hooked to the very end.