Well, I thought that I’d talk briefly about backstory today. Although earlier drafts of this article were originally longer, they mostly focused on criticising examples of badly-handled backstory I’d seen in novels and this seemed a bit harsh. So, I eventually decided to just focus on the advice itself instead.
1) Little and often: Whilst in-depth characterisation is a good thing, it is important to remember that your reader will be reading your story for the actual story. In other words, what is happening “right now” as opposed to “several years earlier”.
So, it is better to have lots of shorter moments that show plot-relevant parts of a character’s backstory rather than one longer backstory segment.
The main plot always comes first. If you are going to include backstory, then make sure that it doesn’t distract too much from the main plot. In other words, “little and often” is the best approach to backstory.
2) Implication: This is a bit like the old “show, don’t tell” writing advice. In short, if you can quickly and briefly hint at part of your character’s backstory (by showing the effects of it), then your audience is probably going to understand. In other words, you don’t need to tell them the same thing twice by including a flashback segment.
Yes, flashback segments can be useful for showing the reader how a character either has or hasn’t changed over time and for seriously significant moments in that character’s life. But, a lot of the time, it’s better to just show the reader the effects of a character’s history and let your readers “fill in the gaps”.
3) Variation, contrast and realism: In short, people’s lives are a mixture of different types of moments. There are good times and there are bad times. There are fond memories and times that are best forgotten. What I’m trying to say here is that, if you want your character to seem vaguely realistic, then there needs to be some variation in the emotional tone of their backstory.
Not only can this be contrasted with the events of the main plot for dramatic effect (eg: a character relying on memories of better times to get through a bad time. Or a good time being soured by miserable memories), but it also makes your character seem like a much more well-rounded person too. So, don’t be afraid to include a mixture of good and bad elements in your character’s backstory.
So, if you want your character’s backstory to be dramatic, then be sure to include emotional contrast in it.
Sorry for the short article, but I hope that it was useful 🙂