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In my screenplay, I feature a CEO of an advertising agency who is "pot shaped," shy, tongue-tied and a few other characteristics that make you wonder how he ever became an advertising executive, never mind a CEO. Until the retired founder comments that this "careful and earnest" executive "made no enemies and very few mistakes on his way up, and had a way of coming up with the right answer to complex problems."

I felt that these salient points were adequate for a character description. Until a (female) critic told me, "You've got to tell us more about him; what kind of family life does he have, what does he do for fun. (He's the third most important character who "gives the bride away.")

Then there is his first (female) boss, whom I present as vain, narcisstic, luxury-loving, etc. Again my critic asks me to tell more of her "backstory;" that she hailed from Minnesota befor she came to New York City, fell in love with the lights, is a dilettante, because she can hardly describe the plays and paintings that she's seen once.

Is my critic correct in pushing me to give minor details about my characters? Or am I more nearly correct in trying to keep the focus on people's most important characteristics? FWIW, my critic was born around 1940, and things may have been different in "her" time, than today.

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There are some stories where backstory is extremely important; there are some where it's entirely inconsequential.

The easy answer is: If you know what kind of story you're telling, you know whether backstory is important or not.

To take a few simple examples, in a light adventure, or a police procedural, you probably don't need anything more than establishing everybody's current role in the ensemble. In a family melodrama, it's practically a given that everybody is keying off of patterns and history that have been building up gradually.

But you could have a light adventure where the team is pursued by their old enemies, and you could have a melodrama with no backstory, e.g. about a sudden change that came out of nowhere. In many ways, backstory is a tool in your toolbox. Usually you use it by choice, because you've chosen to write something involving history and long-term developments.

On the other hand, there are also times where backstory feels absolutely necessary - because everybody has a history; because a person's history affects his life; because there's some element that doesn't make sense without a backstory explanation. Points can come up in a story where you feel like backstory is required, and if it isn't there, that can simply feel false.

And there's a case in the middle. Where there's no direct demand for backstory, but there's still a vague sense that backstory should be there. Because if nobody has any backstory, the characters might feel unmoored, living in their own little plot-bubble and having no substance to them that doesn't directly affect the story.

In other words, the problem in this middle case isn't the lack of backstory. It's that the characters seem poorly developed, or that the story feels too self-contained and artificial. Backstory is one tool to help solve that problem.

So, the questions you can ask yourself (or your critic, or additional beta readers) are:

  • What backstory do I need?
    • What role does backstory play in my piece?
    • What are the backstory details that I want to make sure the story gets across?
  • What backstory am I missing?
    • Are there points in my story where backstory seems called for, but isn't provided?
  • Do I have issues where backstory would help?
    • Are my characters well-developed?
    • Does my story feel vivid, rich in detail?
    • Does my story feel artificial, constructed, with everything working out conveniently for the story?

As a broader point, when receiving criticism, I think it's always important to differentiate between comments going "This bothered me" and comments going "Here's how you should fix it."

So if your critic's comment is "There's not enough backstory," that's unfortunately a little unhelpful - backstory is a tool or a solution, not a universal requirement.

You're in one of two situations.

One is that your critic had something that bothered her, and she translated that into a "You need backstory" solution. In this case you'd ideally like to find out what was actually bugging her so you can fix that; maybe with backstory and maybe not.

The other is that your critic has adopted an "Every story needs backstory" guideline, in which case, well, she's probably off-base, applying a rule indiscriminately without being able to justify why that would be a good change to make.

Best of all is if you can ask her outright if she can explain what the problem is that backstory can solve. You might get a really helpful answer. Second best is, get more opinions - if this criticism, or associated issues, are repeated by others, you'll know you've got a problem and you'll have a better idea of the specifics; if they aren't, then it's just this one person's taste and you don't need to worry about it.

All the best!

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Characters are defined by what they want and what they are willing to do to get it. The specific details you give about them are there to justify what they want and what they are willing to do to get it. Joe wants X because he was raised by wolves in a trailer park in the 70s. Mary is willing to do Y because she was raised on a commune in Argentina by a mother with a an extra finger on her left hand. The details is there so that we will understand what they want and what they are willing to do to get it.

How much detail is required to do this depends on the nature of the work, what kind of desire, and what kinds of inhibitions you are exploring. Genre fiction has it tropes that allow you to shortcut this process somewhat, especially for secondary characters. Literary fiction that explores more subtle motivations and more subtle inhibitions may require more, and more precise, detail.

So, the answer is not an absolute one. Some characters and some styles and genres require a lot of detailed backstory; others require only a few strokes the the pen to place a character in their familiar role in a familiar story structure. The test is, is the level of detail adequate to justify what the character wants and what they are willing to do to get it.

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It sounds like your critic is telling you that your characters aren't three-dimensional enough for her to care about them or see them as more than thinly sketched "types." Adding backstory might or might not help that problem.

The best writing advice I've heard on detail (Sturgeon, via Delany) is that you should know much more detail than ever makes it into your final piece of writing. So you should know the entire backstory of your characters, but only put it in the screenplay if it makes sense or is needed.

In other words, the problem might not be that you're not telling enough about your characters, but that you don't know enough about them --in other words, that you haven't imagined them richly enough for them to live onscreen. The way you phrased your question suggests that you're not much interested in them beyond the role you need them to play in the plotline (something that may be coming through in your writing).

  • Actually, my problem is the opposite one. I know these characters quite well because they are based on real people. So I want to be as sparing on details as possible (while preserving the characters) so that it isn't "too" real. In a sense, I'm somewhat dependent on "central casting." – Tom Au Jul 7 '16 at 20:10
  • @TomAu Even if this is a screenplay "a clef," the characters need to have their own life. And just because you know them in real life doesn't mean you really know them. Rather than erring on the side of too few details, maybe you need more details that aren't carbon copy matches of the people who inspired the story. Even in a dramatization of a real-life story, the writers alter the characters, and if you're billing this as fiction, it's all but demanded. – Chris Sunami Jul 7 '16 at 20:33
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This is a screenplay so I think your initial salient points are plenty. I want to learn about the character by seeing what he does not have all kinds of details about why he ties he shoes a certain way.

Viki King explains that a lot of this backstory writing is often a way that authors escape doing the real work of writing the screen play.
How To Write A Movie In 21 Days by Viki King - amazon link

The few lines you explained the character in are plenty for me to get the idea so I can start seeing him on screen with an idea of the basics of how he'll behave.

It's all wrapped up in his self-concept really and that'll be obvious as we watch the character behave on screen.

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