10

I've been starting something really interesting lately, which is writing each of my main character's back story before writing the main book (If anyone is having the dreaded block or is looking for a way to know their character's better I really recommend it). Which got me thinking, how much of it should I include in the main book?

Flashbacks not included, a character's back story is a very important puzzle price in the whole book.

I have always found it hard to not put everything I know about my character's in the book but it's crucial that I don't convey everything.

So the question is how much should one know about a character's past??

  • 1
    As with most things, it depends. Some characters are open books, others are enigmatic. But having a backstory for a character is a good idea even if you never disclose it. Their histories can shape their personalities and choices in the story you are writing. – GordonM Jun 6 '17 at 9:10
15

Only put in what is necessary for the plot.

You develop the character so that the actions s/he takes make sense for the plot. If the character reveals something about his/her past, there should be a plot-related reason for it. (That reason might be another character's reaction, or how it furthers a relationship, but there has to be a reason.)

Otherwise, keep it in your slush file and read it to yourself if it makes you happy. But don't clutter up your manuscript if it's not relevant.

  • 2
    Thank you, Lauren! Clogging my book with unnecessary subplots is one of my biggest fears. I've been doing what you said subconsciously, I noticed, so I'm going to tart taking extra note of that. Again, thank you! – J. Roberts Jun 5 '17 at 21:01
6

You have probably done yourself a great favour by working out some character background. It is something I recommend to new writers because it helped me so much. The thing you need to remember is who you are writing for with the background. The background is for you, the story is for the reader.

In any given scene you include what is necessary to advance the story. However, the background work that you do will flavour, sometimes very subtly, the things the character will say and do.

If you have done your background work well and truly realised the characters before writing you may be surprised to find that readers are able to work out facts that come very close to the background without every explicitly having been told int he story.

For example, imagine a romance subplot where the protagonist has been through three bitter divorces. Her friend decides to leave her husband for no good reason). Her reaction is not just to prudishly disprove as in your original plot plan. Instead, she is going to act like her friend has done something very self-destructive, maybe even hosting an intervention.

There will almost certainly be a moment where she says something like "you have no idea how bad it can get." Thus, implying personal experience. That personal experience was something you discovered during background and is part of what shaped the character.

99% of the time the background writing is just for you and you will almost always work out a lot more than you need to put in. Tolkien spent his life world building which is why Lord of the Rings seems so rich and real. he left out far, far more than he included. What he included was, for the most part, what was needed for the story.

Just let all that work rest in your mind and you will find that the characters are better realised and the story flows much better as a result. The readers might not know how much background they missed out on but that does not matter - they will know that they enjoyed your work.

5

You can (and probably should) tell your characters' background stories, but you should also ask yourself a question - "would it make my book better?"

There are a few rules that I think are important:

  • A backstory should be interesting by itself;
  • A backstory should be relevant to the main plot, or at least provide some important answers to the questions the reader would have about the characters;
  • Backstories should not hijack the main storyline.

If done right, background stories would provide much help with character development.

3

When you write your main story, you "show what." The back story gives the motivations of the characters for what they do in the plot. Put another way, it furnishes the "whys." Therefore, you should disclose enough of the back story to show why people say and do the things they do.

You (usually) don't need to give details about peoples' hobbies and interests, unless, of course, they're relevant to the main story. But the flip side of that is every action undertaken in the main story should be motivated by something else in the story. If that "something else" starts in the back story, it should be pulled into the main story. That basically answers your question about "how much."

2

The answer to your question is "as little as possible". The need for back story is symptom of a poor exposition style. It usually means you 'the narrator' want to tell the reader everything.

Effectively you are inviting me to your house and telling me all about your Barbie dolls . . . You'll bore me. I want to play with them.

Rather than you tell me Elizabeth served in the military, was raped, and it was all covered up. The reader could learn about her military experience in the scene where she's interviewed for her new job. They'd begin to suspect something bad happened to her extreme reaction when a date attempts to steal third base. Eventually, she'll spill the beans to her therapist.

Unless it's relevant to the story there's no need to for back story.

"Back-story" is also as misleading term which only applies to very few styles and genre.

  • I hadn't thought about this, but that is a very good point. This allows the reader to identify to a character more, especially if they have wildly different histories. Very good points... And it also brings home the point of Show don't tell... – JP Chapleau Jun 7 '17 at 14:53

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