Your character’s backstory is there to explain to readers the “why” behind your characters. Why they might have certain goals, desires, and motivations for certain things. As many psychology studies have revealed, the environment you grow up in shapes you as a person. But we don’t need psychology to tell us this. It’s something we inherently know. So, when you’re writing your characters, it is imperative that you think of how their environment has shaped them as humans and how to write a great backstory that will tie their past to their present selves.
Writing a great backstory is an essential part of transforming a static character into a well-rounded one. It adds depth and direction to your story and makes the audience empathize more with your character’s plight. It is important to convey that the character you’re writing about existed well before the reader first opened your book.
Now that we’ve determined the importance of a backstory, how does one go about writing one? Where should you start and how do you go about inserting the backstory into your plot without it feeling unnatural?
Two Methods to Writing a Backstory
Let’s first start with the steps to writing a good, complete backstory. There are essentially two ways to go about writing your character’s backstory and tieing it to their current personality: The forward method and the Inverted method.
The forward method is when you start slowly developing your character’s backstory first and then proceed to develop their personality traits whereas the inverted method is when you develop the personality of your character first and then the background.
I will talk more about these two methods further down the article and give some examples of how both of these methods can be used to develop a good backstory depending on which one you prefer. If you don’t know which method works best for you, I encourage you to try them both out and see which one suits you and your writing style best.
Once you’ve figured out which method you prefer, it’s time to start developing your character’s backstory (if you want to start with the personality first, I’ve written an article here that will guide you on writing about personality).
How to write a great backstory
Here are the main things to consider when writing a characters’ background:
The type of family dynamic your character had growing up. Here you think about the parents. Did your character grow up in a single or a two-parent household, were they an orphan? If they did grow up with their parents, did they have a healthy relationship with them? Were the parents overprotective and overbearing or too not protective enough? Also mention whether they grew up with siblings or not.
Communication style is also an important aspect to consider as it ties into the environment one grows up in. If your character grew up with both parents, how did they communicate with one another? Did they shout a lot at each other or avoid speaking about problems altogether? Were they loving and understanding towards each other and towards your character or never expressed any type of affection? All of these little details can help your audience understand your character’s present personality. For example, if the parents were emotionally distant, this might have caused your character to develop an avoidant attachment style as a defense mechanism.
Determining the family dynamic your character grew up in is an essential part of building a proper backstory. Different dynamics will affect individuals in varying ways and this can be the main aspect explaining how or why your character developed certain personality traits, goals, desires, or fears.
Here you can also specify whether some traits your character seemed to be born with (ex: naturally hardheaded) versus traits that were developed as a consequence of the environment they grew up in.
Then we think of friends, school peers, neighbors, people outside the family as they are also important to agents in a backstory. Let’s say your character was an orphan and had grown up in a foster family they hated. However, they had a neighbor that they had a good relationship with, and that neighbor became a kind of parental figure to them. People outside of the family can also have a major effect on how your character grows up, who they become and what habits they learn.
Other things to consider would be whether your character grew up a loner or social? Were they bullied or admired by peers? Within their friend group, were they the leader or the follower? This type of information can be important to see how your character previously interacted and was perceived by others.
Habits & Passions
To develop a good backstory, it might be important to mention any significant habits, interests, or passions your character might’ve developed during their childhood or teenagehood that are relevant to the story you’re telling. You can also mention how/why they started that particular hobby, who inspired them etc.
Last but not least, significant experiences in your character’s life that might have changed them either for better or for worst are an important part of any good backstory. This is where part of the current story your telling begins. Here are some examples of significant events/experiences characters could go through; a car crash, illness, death of a parent, divorce of parents, bullying, the first time they tried drugs, first romantic/sexual relationship, etc.
Example of The Foward Method
Let’s say you’ve conceived the following backstory:
A girl grew up in a small town with her dad. She was an only child and didn’t have many friends. Although her father was loving and kind, he never quite knew how to express his emotions to her and didn’t know how to react when she expressed her emotions to him. The only way she knew how to express emotions was through art so she developed a passion for painting.
Hence, due to how she grew up, this character would be very closed off by nature, most likely introverted, a bit of a loner but very artistic.
Example of The inverted method
Let’s say you want to write about a character who’s emotionally intelligent, manipulative, and likes to con people for their own benefit. However, they’re kind to children and have a heart of gold underneath the hard surface.
After you’ve written down the adjectives that you want to describe your character as you can take their core characteristics and decide how/why that character is like that.
For example, you could say that your character is emotionally intelligent because their mother was a psychiatrist and they learned a lot from overhearing her therapy sessions. You could also say that your character learned how to be manipulative from studying the mother’s patients, hearing their weaknesses, and learning to prey on them, etc. You should do this for each of the core traits of your character and determine “why” the way they do.
Inserting the Backstory into your Story
Now that you’ve developed the backstory, it’s time to think about how and when you’re going to present it to your audience.
- Do it in way that feels real. When you’re getting to know a person you’ve just met, usually they don’t dump all of their trauma on you within the first 5 min, so don’t do that with your writing (no info dumping). Spoon feed your audience pieces of information at a time.
- Present basic information such as name, age range, etc. pretty early on.
- Some other traits are also good to present early on such as the big 5 traits because they’re pretty obvious once you first meet someone. The big five traits are extraversion, conscienciousness, agreaableness, neuroticism & Openess to experience
- Quirky habits that person does all the time can also be implemented slowly throughout the story.
- Goals, motivations, desires and trauma should usually be revealed a bit later on.
- Remember, let your readers wonder/be curious about your character and their past. This “getting to know you” phase is whats new and exiting about meeting new people and its no different when reading about new characters.