To answer that question, firstly we have to define what backstory is. There are plenty of variations on what it means, but in simple terms, backstory refers to your character’s background story, that which precedes the present events in a novel.
It’s about the things that have occurred in the past to shape the way your character behaves in the present. Every character has a back story, just as every person in real life has a history. What has happened to us in our lives – from early childhood to adulthood - has shaped how we behave, how we think and how we react to certain things. Some elements are very happy, some are sad, some are traumatic or problematic, some crazy.
Your main character will also have gone through childhood into adulthood and will have experienced various things that shape they way they think and influence the way the act and react in certain situations, but the crucial question is whether backstory is actually necessary.
The best way to answer that is to look at the fundamental reason your character goes about the story acting the way he or she does. This is down to motivation. What motivates your character to do something or react to something or someone? What motivates them to reach their goal? Often, but not always, the answer lies in the past. That’s when back story becomes a useful tool.
Back story should be pertinent only if you have to show the reader something from the main character’s past in order to explain certain behaviours happening in the present story, the kind of things that you wouldn’t be able to explain in a few paragraphs.
There is another valid reason for backstory. It helps to establish a connection between character and reader. It is true in life that the more you get to know someone, the more likely it is you will like that person. The same is true for fiction. By allowing the reader to gain a little more background knowledge about your main character, the better. Backstory helps with this kind of characterisation.
The good thing about backstory is that you don’t have to show lots of it. Either small amounts at a time or snippets sprinkled throughout the narrative are enough for the reader.
How is backstory shown?
There are various ways to do this without it making it look like obvious, stilted exposition or a huge info dump, since readers don’t like them and can be particularly put off by large chunks of boring information.
One way is to use flashback, either through a direct flashback scene or by the character reminiscing about a past event. This is where flashbacks prove useful. They don’t have to be long – flashbacks can be a few paragraphs – but the dip into the past provides insight into the present.
Another way is to slowly drip feed snippets into the narrative, slowly weaving them into the story, this avoiding both flashback and prologues. It also avoids unnecessarily swamping the narrative with too much information in one go.
This ‘weaving’ process is far more palatable for the reader and if done correctly, they will barely realise that the writer is showing backstory.
Another way is to use prologues, but these are now falling out of fashion simply because they are considered large ‘info dumps’ and can be more of a hindrance than a help. They are not the best way to get your story off to a good start, so the use of these would need careful consideration.
Another method for delivery of backstory is dialogue, where characters talk about past aspects (in order to explain the present situation or events or behaviours etc.). But a word of warning here – many writers fall into the trap of ‘explanation exposition’. In other words, it sounds like two characters are simply discussing something to explain stuff that the writer wouldn’t be able to do without info dumping.
This occurs a lot in movies, when a character starts explaining all sorts of stuff to another character for no real reason other than to tell the audience, but in truth, the audience are not that stupid.
For example, would the bad guy really stop mid-way through killing his victim and explain why he was killing him or her, or how he came to this moment? Of course he wouldn’t. Or what about the classic villain and hero cop stand off? The villain has to explain everything to the cop just before trying to kill him. That would not happen in real life. So don’t let fall into the same trap.
Let your backstory reveal itself naturally through dialogue; don’t force it.
Most novels will have a mix of flashback, the dialogue technique and snippets woven throughout the narrative to provide the most effective delivery of backstory, and if done correctly, a very effective way of letting the reader know the nature and motivation of the main character(s).
It’s not to be underestimated, but writers should think carefully about how they want to deliver backstory, but most important, why.
Next week: The Psychology of Characters