Also sometimes written as one word, backstory, this is one of the most overlooked elements of writing fiction. It also can be argued that it is important on any level of writing. Why? Because it adds the third dimension to your writing. How? You need to understand your character's motivations even when your reader does not.
Not only does having a full history of your characters give them a dimension that makes them more like real people, it gives them consistency. If Tyrone gets real angry at one point in your story after a car splashes mud on his new coat, then at another point brushes off someone spilling hot soup in his lap, people will wonder. Or on a more "factual" level, if he is on a job interview in chapter one discussing his masters degree from Harvard and in chapter ten talks about how he dropped out of school in the eighth grade and never went back...
A character's back story may develop as the story moves on. You might note a few facts about him or her before you begin writing, or you might write an entire history first. Either way, the development of your character may change the back story as it goes along. The important thing to remember is that the back story belongs to you. It is revealed to your reader slowly and needs to be consistent, but if you decide down the line that Tyrone's character is better if he did drop out in the eighth grade, you can change his back story and go back and take out all references to his Harvard degree. The important element here is that you need to remember and note this fact and avoid slipping back into the Harvard references. Of course, this does not mean he cannot lie on his job interview and tell his potential employer that he did get a masters degree from Harvard. That becomes a new twist in the plot. You might even convince your reader it is true, as long as you know the facts about Tyrone and remain consistent about them. Once you set your back story in stone, think of your characters as chained to their past and having a personality just like a real person.
Three Dimensional Characters
Tyrone needs a personality and he needs a background. Otherwise he is just a name in a story that does things for no apparent reason and says random things. This can be revealed to your reader slowly, allowing them to put together the many pieces that make up Tyrone. The reader may begin to relate to Tyrone. Perhaps he is ashamed of his past and lies about it constantly. The reader may start to wonder "When is Tyrone going to come clean?" Another element of plot development has been born. Readers want to care about the characters they read about or see in the movies or on TV. They are naturally driven to want to know more about these characters once they begin to care about them. Once they have really gotten into a character like Tyrone, they are going to get really pissed off if Tyrone does or says something that does not fit his character, so you must always know your characters better than your readers so that they remain consistent and continue to surprise. The back story is the third dimension of characters as well as the places and events of your story.
Everything has Back Story
I have always thought of everything in a story as a character. The town the people live in is a character with personality and secrets. The car Tyrone drives to work has a history and a personality. Some may go so far with their back story as to know the entire mechanical history of the car, the date of its last oil change and the real origin of that "whooping" sound coming from under the hood. Hell, even his watch and his baseball cap have a history. That history may never come into play, but as a writer you need to be aware of it.
There is a history to the setting of your story. Or did this place really only exist once you created it? Even if none of the information about the place your story is set in ever gets revealed to the reader, it is important for setting the mood. The setting's history is an essential part of what makes the characters who live there who they are, and as such is also important in character development.
Become Your Characters
In order to better write your characters, you need to at least be able to think and feel what they do. Any truly good actor
will tell you that they need to know everything possible about a character before portraying them. That is in the interest of becoming the character, or getting into character
, and it is something a writer needs to do as well. As you write a character, even a minor character
in a story, you have to ask yourself questions about them in order to know how they will react
to different situations and remain consistent and believable
. The best way to do that is to slip into their shoes and become them for a while, making notes of everything you discover while wearing said footwear. It is important for you, as a writer, to know the back story or you will not understand the motivations of characters and the reasons things happen
. If you don't understand, how could your reader possibly understand?
Epilogue: Don't Forget to Pack Your Back Story
A reader will know when you've pulled a story out of your ass, so to speak. Even a completely plot driven story loses its appeal when the settings and characters come off as badly drawn cartoons. You may have the most interesting storyline, and know exactly how you are going to get from point A to point B. You might say that the intricacies of your plot will dazzle and amaze even the most intelligent reader. For some, that plot may be the starting point for an incredible short story or novel, but it isn't everything. It is only the beginning. What goes on behind the scenes is just as important as what happens on stage. Without back story, the stage eventually collapses.