Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Focus on Back Story

As writers we always hear about the importance of back story. To me, back story is the "why" of our characters. And it's not only your protagonist who needs a healthy back story. The more you know about each person who appears on the page, the deeper you'll be able to write them.

Back story informs our actions. If I had never had a bad horse wreck, I'd still be riding with gusto. But that accident informs my decisions in the here and now. For example, you're reading this story about a girl who loves horses. Loves the way they smell, the way they sound, the way they move. This girl even loves cleaning stalls. She's that enamored. But the girl won't get on. As a reader you're probably frustrated by her. She obviously loves horses so why won't she ride? But if the author slips in a hint, or even writes the horse loving girl in a way that points to a checkered past, you, the reader, get it and go along.

As a writer when I find my characters are feeling flat, or I can't move ahead, chances are I haven't dug far enough into their past. Here's an example. I was writing parents in a manuscript who were feeling deep grief over the loss of a child. Even though the parents were in no way central characters, I spent tons of time on websites dealing with what happens when you lose a child. Once I had enough research, once I'd filled in the backstory, then I was able to continue writing.

Currently, I'm having to fill in the backstory for a character in NO PLACE TO FALL. I don't know why I never had. I had a vague idea of his background, but I never flushed him out. And now, in edits, the lack of "why" is showing up. So I'm having to back pedal and dig in. It's time to think hard about who this guy is and why he does the things he does.

But not only do I need to think about his individual backstory, but the backstory that's been woven between him and every member of the Vaughn family. That shared backstory informs present day decisions as well. If every time you see your Aunt Lucy, she brings a box of chocolates, you might choose to skip dessert (or in my case, I'd probably eat both!).

Think of a Venn diagram. You have your character's history, your other character's history, and their joined history. NONE of that stuff is going in your present day story, but every bit of it will answer a WHY in the present day. Crazy, right?

And you thought writing was easy. ;0)

What are your thoughts on back story and how you write?


  1. Great post! I usually have the back story in mind, but sometimes I forget to share enough with the readers.

    Curious who is getting fleshed out in NPTF...

  2. Love this. And is true--even if the backstreet never comes out in the book, it mold your character and forms his/her motivations. It really does deepen them.

  3. Nice post! BS (that's backstory, not ... you know) makes for authentic, believable, relatable characters. Know your BS, but also don't feel like you have to dump it all in the story.


  4. I have to know all the details of the backstory, but only share a few, what's necessary. ^_^

  5. Boo, I think Blogger ate my comment. Just wanted to say I love this post :) I have trouble moving forward in a draft if I don't know every little detail of everyone's backstory.

  6. I tend to get too hung up on backstory and end up deleting a lot of it from my wip :) There's always so much fun stuff though! Okay, so out of curiosity, do you outline characters somehow to keep track of info about them?

  7. I just heard the most marvelous quote about backstory. It's something to the effect that the place to put the backstory is at the spot where it will add to the emotional impact of the current scene.


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