The what, when and how of character backstory

Backstory is critical to a reader’s understanding of our characters. But there are ways to do it without bogging the reader down.

My novel Keepers starts with a young mother, Raine, hanging out washing in the teeth of a fierce wind. We gather she lives at the top of a hill, somewhat isolated. She is upset, thinking about a person called Teddy and how, a month ago, she received news about him.

The reader has no idea who Raine is, why she is at the top of the hill or who Teddy is and what’s happened to him. But – I hope – the reader’s curiosity is sufficiently aroused to want to know more about these characters and how they got here.

How not to do backstory

I expect few novelists these days would start their story with a narrated history of the protagonist’s life.
However, I’ve read manuscripts where the opening is peppered with WHY the character is doing what they’re doing. They are reminded of the bully at school, or the way their parents fought over breakfast, and this is heavily influencing their actions.
Or we get told at some length about what has led them to this point – how they took that job knowing it carried risks, but the money was good and their mother needed an operation – and now they’re in this dangerous or emotional situation. I don’t know about you, but I lose the will to care. The author has successfully slowed the pace and bogged the reader down with information they have no capacity to process because they don’t know or care about the characters yet.

On the other hand, I’ve also read manuscripts too short on information about characters’ backstories. Even by the end of the book, I have only a vague idea about key questions such as why the protagonist is in the position they are in.

Both are unsatisfying reads.

Where’s the balance? How do we make sure we raise curiosity and connection without frustration? How do we satisfy the need to know at the appropriate places in our story? And – big question – how much DOES the reader need to know?

Starting with the last question first –

What does the reader need to know?

Rule of thumb, it’s what the characters need to say to make sense of the story, not what the author feels readers should know because they spent hours developing a whole life for this character.
Here’s a made-up, simplified example:

couple at party

Peter meets Jilly at a party.

‘Jilly nods a hello. She thinks he seems a nice guy but he reminds her of her ex, whom she met in high school. He had blond hair and blue eyes and he was polite to the teachers.’

Image Pixabay StockSnap / 27555 images

Does it matter the ex had blond hair and was polite? I doubt it makes any difference to the story. Throw it out.

Here’s a continuation which most likely IS relevant to the story overall:

‘They dated for years and were engaged before she discovered he was seeing her best friend on the side, Tammy. Tammy and Jilly had been friends since pre-school which made it all the worse for Jilly. She guesses that’s why she’s never trusted people with the name Tammy ever since, nor any of her friends she went to school with come to think of it. Not that she sees them much anymore, not since she moved away from home because her parents were always fighting. She sighs. No wonder she has relationship troubles.’

All those experiences messing with Jilly’s emotions are bound to affect how her relationship with Peter pans out (sorry!).

But does the reader need to know it all at this stage? I would argue that what’s important now is that Peter reminds Jilly of her ex. She could grimace at the comparison, showing it wasn’t a happy one. If the writer adds in all the rest, the reader has no reason to be curious any more because Jilly’s history and her state of mind are laid out like a picnic on a rug.

But how does the writer get this important backstory across in a natural way? There are two things to consider.

Timing: when to put it in

Let’s say Peter asks Jilly out and they hit it off. Is this going to be the time Jilly lays it on about her cheating ex and Tammy, about her parents and her relationship problems? Possibly not, at least not out loud over the starter. But the author might be tempted to tell the reader:

dinner couple

‘Jilly played with her baked goats cheese and caramelised red onion jam. She really liked Peter. But he reminded her of her ex, whom she met in high school. They dated for years…etc etc.’

image Pixabay 165106 / 2168 images

What is appropriate here is a hint which takes the reader a step closer to understanding without revealing all. If what Jilly says or thinks sounds forced or goes on too long, if Peter and/or the reader are likely to react with, ‘too much too soon’, the writer should back off and wait.

Keep asking this question on each occasion you’re tempted to detail a character’s background, and especially their motivation. We don’t learn everything about a person the moment we meet them in real life (unless they are a compulsive sharer). We learn about them over time, through what they say and what they do.

Which leads nicely to the next consideration –

Method: How to reveal backstory

Straight narration can work, but there are more engaging ways. As in real life, what the character says and what they do are two key ways for the reader – and other characters – to learn about them. In terms of actions, in our Peter and Jilly example, Jilly might become awkward over that first dinner when Peter talks about his parents’ loving relationship. She might shuffle in her chair, keep her eyes on the menu. She might say, in a brusque tone, ‘That must have been nice.’  Here the reader gets a strong clue she doesn’t share the experience, and so does Peter.

Sharing backstory via dialogue can be even more direct and is a useful way to avoid too much ‘telling’ by the narrator. Here’s an example from Keepers.

A day or so earlier, Teddy and Alf, strangers, rescued Raine from a drunk on the migrant camp where they all live. They took her home, but beyond names there was no conversation. However, the young men meet her off her bus the next evening. This time they tell each other about themselves:

Where you from, Raine?’ Alf said. ‘You’re an Aussie, aren’t you? What you doing in the camp with all us foreign immigrant types?’
‘Pfft.’ Teddy shook his head. ‘I’m no foreigner.’

‘You’re not Australian’–­Alf pronounced it Orstralian–‘therefore you’re a foreigner.’ Alf paused to give Teddy muttering time. ‘You, Raine? What you doing here?’
Raine shrugged at the nosy question, calmer now the danger of attack was behind her. ‘We’re from the country, south of here. My Pop’s ill and had to come to a big hospital in the city. We ended up in the camp because there’s too many of us to stay with relatives.’
‘We’re from London,’ Alf said. ‘East End.’
‘Bomb site, the whole place. The blitz.’ Teddy offered this up with a swagger, seeming to assume the global fame of the blitz was transferable to each individual who’d lived through it.

In this passage I’ve given backstory for each of the characters in a natural way. I’ve done something else too – I’ve given clues about both Alf and Teddy’s characters. Alf is straightforward, tolerant of his friend, while Teddy comes across as a bit of a swaggerer. All very germane for what’s to come, and no narrative involved.

Another weapon for getting backstory across is something only available to writers. Internal dialogue can be used  through short memories, taking a character back to when something happened, or to feelings from a time past. This is a means not open to us in real life, or, usually, in a film. It’s an advantage writers have which they should use, in appropriate measures (keep it succinct) and at relevant times.

Summary

Each time you’re tempted to tell the reader about your character’s background ask
1. Does the reader need to know this?
2. Do they need to know it now?
3. When do they need to know it?
4. How do they learn it?

Finally, here’s an experiment for you. In that all important opening chapter, try taking out all the backstory. Leave only the present action, emotions and immediate thoughts of the protagonists (not the ones which give backstory!). The chapter will move much more quickly and hopefully will carry the reader along into the world of the story, their need to discover more piqued. And that, after all, is what we writers strive to achieve at every turn.

Happy writing.


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