My story happens as a result of one of the main characters getting murdered. I'm wondering how to get readers to care about someone who's not even in the story (as far as the readers know anyway) or at least sympathize with the other main character and their relationship other than "She was probably his girlfriend or something".

Her (their) backstory is not that interesting without the context of the current, post-death storyline so I don't really want to start with 5 chapters of backstory that will be boring for the reader until chapter 10.

I have an idea about doing some kind of flashbacks, something I later realised wuold be quite similar to what the "Arrow" TV series does, but I am unsure how to write this effectively without confusing the reader.

How can I write these flashbacks in a reader-friendly way? Or if anyone have some completely different idea of how to write something like this.


While several of the answers gives an interesting approach about basically not telling the backstory it is not quite what I am looking for so I thought I should give more information.

The backstory is not just about her. She and the main character have done a lot of things that are still affecting the future either directly or indirectly.

The main story will take place several years after the murder so he has gotten over the initial shock (i.e. he is not lying awake at night crying about her) but he still has to deal with the consequences of their time together.

An example would be that the main character might replace her with a android that they built together (not quite what will happen but easier to explain) and I want to both tell the background story of how they built that android as well as how said android differs from the real version (speech, personality etc.).

  • 6
    One question: why does the reader need to care about the dead character? May 15, 2018 at 14:50
  • 1
    Make everyone unfairly resent/disdain them, possibly for the wrong reasons / because of a misunderstanding or misrepresentation, except maybe for a single reliable but not trusted (by other people in the story) individual. In other words, make that person a victim of unjust treatment. This is something most people can easily relate about, thus will attract their sympathy and affection. May 15, 2018 at 18:03
  • A dead or absent character can nonetheless be a member of the cast if they had enough influence on the other characters. I recently read Pratchett's "Wee Free Men", in which one of the most important characters is the MC's grandmother who died two years before the story started. Pratchett achieves this by way of flashbacks (memories, really) but there are also plenty of other reminders of how important she was to the MC and how much of an impact she had on the people in her neighbourhood.
    – Llewellyn
    May 17, 2018 at 20:36

8 Answers 8


You don't necessarily want or need flashbacks and you don't necessarily need the reader to like the character who died in an intimate way where they actually know who that character was. What you want is for the reader to understand what the lack of this character has done to the world and to see other people who for good reason miss that character.

An example: your main character used to make coffee for his girlfriend every morning. He wakes up and is tired, not quite there; makes two cups and leaves hers on the counter, takes a sip of his own and then remembers there's no one to drink the second cup. Here you see the main character cared enough to do something for this person, and you get to see his sadness when something simple and mundane falls apart. He can get choked up for a moment, doesn't have to melodramatic and just pour out the coffee and walk out the door.

Little things like that. Show where the connections used to be and are now severed. If there's a group, make sure there's an obvious empty spot in the room. Just add a bit of stress. Showing how the living liked and cared for the person who his gone and how they're diminished just a bit without that person in their lives is enough.

Flashbacks are often crutches. They're usable, but not necessary to simply impart a sense of grief, loss, and even likability for the dead.

It really depends on what you're trying to say as to which way you go. A character who was overly dependent on his gf might have relied on her a lot and been quite thankless while he had her around. You can make him really look like a jerk depending what examples of severed ties you use. But, a guy who did a lot for the gf is going to come across as more sympathetic, unless he literally did everything in which case you can get into overly codependent or sycophant territory again.

My recommendations for avoiding common mistakes are these:

  • It's likely going to be bad if your character cries at the end of multiple scenes/chapters because it likely won't feel earned. Not everyone is a cryer, for one, and for two crying is used regularly as a shortcut for more of a tell and less of a show. (Show Don't Tell; This one's non-obvious to some people because if novice authors show a character crying, but don't do the show of the emotional baggage behind it that really earns the moment)

  • Avoid the mary-sue. No one is perfect. Make sure the relationship and the people in them had flaws, even if they're endearing flaws. Don't make it totally flawed either. You're not looking for perfect balance, but you don't want to tip the scales into unbelievabality.

  • Less is more. Remind enough that the reader gets it, but if its not important to the active story a lighter touch is better. Every time you break for a moment like this it will throw a speed bump in your pacing. The longer the break, the more off track you'll get (you're right to worry about this); but you still need something.

  • People don't always agree about who other people were. They're rarely really far off, but it does happen. Keep in mind that not everyone will think the same thing about a person or have the same insights, but they'll all be shades of the same color. Based in the same events/facts, but different in how they were experienced. You don't need to go so far as outright hatred or outright love for everyone, in fact you shouldn't, but every person should have their own unique-but-similar reaction to the loss of the character. Intimacy-distance, Experience-Unfamiliarity & support-antagonism are all vectors you can play with and they can be different (and were) at different points in the past.

Finally, your characters all want things. It helps if the gf who is gone factored into what those characters wanted and whether they get to have them now. Its best when some of those things end up conflicting and other issues that seemed insurmountable suddenly become easier to do as the politics of life changes. Not everyone and everything should be affected, but a few goals here and there should.

With regards to your edit: you can still do the above, everyone always has a past, but it it's tangential to your primary story line, then you don't want to dedicate a lot of time to it. If this is what your story is about, then flashbacks are an option, but not the only one. You can do any of the above and go deeper with character interaction, implying enough. Consider a character who is unsettled by the replicant because he knew the gf. Or another who sees in her what he can't have, or one who was always in love with the original. There are lots of variants, but the death doesn't make it very special. Mystery is good for a story, so as long as people don't get confused by your story stay on target.

  • A few other ways: living characters can quite plausibly have pictures of the deceased, sentimental objects that they owned, stories that they told, etc. You can have an expository scene of characters sharing cherry-picked good memories of the deceased on what would have been their birthday.
    – arp
    Jan 24, 2020 at 17:39

I'm going to do something I swore I never would: I'm not going to answer the question. This is because I don't think you really need to get the reader to care for the dead character. Instead of answering, I'm going to explain why below. If I'm totally off on the wrong track, please let me know.

I once wrote a story similar to your situation. The main character's brother, while not dead, was captured by the enemy, and not shown until the end of the tale. The whole goal of the story was to get him back. I struggled with the same problem you have, thinking that as the goal of the story, some sympathy with the brother would be needed since he never showed up until the very end. As it turned out later, I was wrong.

The story is in fact about the main character (or MC). As long as you have developed your main character correctly (which I detail here and here), the simple fact that the MC cares about the dead character is enough.

The only time you might need to worry about creating sympathy with the dead character, is if things come to light which make him unfavorable in the eyes of the reader. Even if the MC still cares about him, the reader might start wondering why, and that logic, if left unanswered, can actually start damaging the reader's sympathy for the MC as well.

To avoid that, have some strength for the dead character come to light, preferably something which negates the bad thing we've discovered. He was a thief? He was remorseful and returned everything years later. He was selfish? Maybe he made the ultimate selfless sacrifice when it counted.

As I mentioned above, you don't need to create sympathy with the dead character unless there is something actively working against you. If there is something working against you though, and you do need to include the strength I mentioned above, how do you include it? In a backstory?

Probably not. While there's nothing inherently wrong with backstories, there is something wrong with writing more than you need. All you need in this case is to make the reader aware of the dead character's strength. In nine cases out of ten, you won't need a backstory for that. Take my two examples above:

  • You need to show that the dead character - a thief - was remorseful and returned everything he stole.
    • He mailed them just before he died, and his victims start receiving the packages when it is convenient to the story.
  • You need to show that the dead character - a selfish person - made the ultimate selfless sacrifice when it counted.
    • There's a host of ways to do this. Off the top of my head, maybe new forensic evidence is found at the scene of the sacrifice, and the truth is discovered.

Conclusion: Always ask yourself why a character needs reader sympathy. In this case, the simple fact that the MC cares for the dead character is enough. The MC is the Main Character for a reason: she's the one we want to win in this story, not the dead character.

The only time your dead character needs sympathy is when there is something actively working against him. Even then, don't be confused: the dead character does not need sympathy because the reader needs to be on his side. The dead character needs sympathy because, with the information the reader has, it is illogical that the MC cares about him the way she does. Supply the reason for why the MC cares about the dead character, and you're golden.

Best of luck!


Have the other characters talk about the dead person.

Make the talk personal and realistic. The things that make us get emotional about someone who is gone are not things like how he surpassed the sales quota at his job or that he was a co-sponsor of legislation to reduce tariffs on bauxite.

It's the little, personal things. Like I saw a TV show once (episode of Babylon 5) where a character says how he misses his dead wife and talks about things like, I saw a story on the news and I thought, I have to tell Ann about this, she's interested in things like that. And then I realized that I couldn't tell her about it because she's gone. I liked Kirk's idea about someone close to the dead person making two cups of coffee. Done well, I can imagine a very poignant scene with him staring at the extra coffee cup, realizing she will never drink it. Or to give a personal example, not someone dying but when my wife left me, some time later I got a pay raise, and I remember looking at the memo about the raise and thinking, When we were married, this would have been cause for celebration. We might have gone out to dinner with the new money and talked about what dreams we had together that were now a step closer, and made plans together. But now, it's just, well, I guess this will make it easier to pay the alimony.

Like many things in writing, it's all about doing it well. If you make it too clinical and shallow, "It's hard getting along without Bob because he had a bigger credit limit", the reader isn't going to get very involved with the characters. But if you try to be very emotional and profound and fail, it can be melodramatic. Being profound is one of the hardest things to do in fiction. If you try to be exciting and don't quite make it, the story can still be somewhat exciting. If you try to be romantic and fail, the story can still be somewhat romantic. Etc. But if you try to be profound and fail, you usually aren't somewhat profound. Rather, you're lame and cloying.

Don't overdo it. Don't make other characters totally incapacitated by the loss of this person -- not unless that's an element of the plot.

  • Not quite "It's hard getting along without Bob because he had a bigger credit limit", but "Life was easier when Bob was paying for so many things" is a great setup for the eventual disclosure that Bob was murdered for financial motives, or because of the criminal enterprise he was getting his money from.
    – arp
    Jan 24, 2020 at 17:43
  • @arp Sure. Talking about Bob's wife struggling to make ends meet and raise the children without him could be effective. Or his business partner talking about how hard it is to keep the company afloat. Etc. Lots of possible angles.
    – Jay
    Jan 24, 2020 at 18:00

Use diary entries.

As a substitute for narrative flashbacks, include short chapters interspersed among the main chapters that consist of diary entries written by the dead girl in first person present tense. If well crafted, the reader can quickly get into her head and become endeared to her. Provide diary entry dates that correspond to the timeline of the story. The existence of the diary doesn't need to be known by the boyfriend, though it could be if it furthers your narrative goals.

  • Welcome to Writing.SE MTA! Nice answer! You may want to check out the tour and the help center to learn more about the site. Hope you stick around. Have fun! May 15, 2018 at 18:24

You don't have to have a flashback for this to work

You could have the characters care the character who was killed. This in turn can lead to the reader caring. You could also use dialogue between characters as they reflect on their memories of this character to develop the dead character. You could make the dead character (or their absence) central to the story. There a number of stories that do this.

However, you could still use flashbacks. How you use flashbacks largely depends on the genre or feeling you are going for. If you a writing a thriller, a fast paced, confusing flashback could help keep suspend going. If you are writing a less intense story, you may want to focus on the relationship between the other characters and now deceased character.

Another thing is to have the still living characters go through the deceased character's valuable belongs. This can make the character more human and explain the character more to the reader.

Finally, I strongly recommend reading stories that do this well. J. Mark Bertrand's Back on Murder does a really great job making you care about character who are dead. It is also brilliantly written all around.


Don't reveal that she's dead

At least, not at first.

Not sure if this will work in your story, or if it fits what you want to do, but you could try framing it in such a way that the reader doesn't realize that she is dead. One example that comes to mind is the Newberry Award winning Walk Two Moons


I am not a proficient story writer but I try to pay attention to the story line more than anything else when I absorb art. I will work with your latest edit:

An example would be that the main character might replace her with a android that they built together (not quite what will happen but easier to explain) and I want to both tell the background story of how they built that android as well as how said android differs from the real version (speech, personality etc.).

If you want to avoid falshbacks, you can work with what I think is called projections. Let's say if I would lose my loved one, I still carry her in my thoughts. I can see how this person views the world to the point that it becomes almost a dissociative identity disorder. Very harshly put, what I actually mean is that you can have impact from that dead character by having the living character mentioning what she would think, comparing her to the android, fearing/excusing-himself-through her reaction if she knew he would replace her with the android. This is a very smooth way, I find, to go to a flashback without doing it Tarantino style but simply as a literary tool (which I think is often used in stories).

However, this is only one option. Another option is to have a third character evaluating the living character based on the dead one. So the story will come out naturally through the living characters reminiscing.

This is my two cents on it :)


Have you seen Thirteen Reasons Why yet? Or read it? I've only seen the tv show, so my answer is based on that, but I assume the book is similar. It's probably quicker to watch a tv show than read a book, but the choice is yours. It does not do what you ask for specifically, but it uses many techniques you can use as well.

The series is about Clay, a teenager whose classmate, Hannah, has commited suicide. She left recordings explaining the thirteen reasons she commited suicide and arranged the tapes would reach the thirteen reasons, the people. Clay is one of these people. The series shows how Clay deals with these recordings.

The story is shown fully from Clay's viewpoint. The series uses various techniques to show Clay's relationship to Hannah, all from his viewpoint.

I'm not an expert at analyzing stories, so you may want to watch it to pick up some techniques (and because it's really good!), but I'll do my best to explain some techniques they use. Much of this is already explained very well in Kirk's excellent answer, so I'm not going into much detail.

Hannah is a driving factor in the story, but Clay really is the main character. Everything is from his viewpoint. Everything you see is as Clay sees or imagines it.

The dead character has been alive once, but they no longer are. They left things, they changed things, but they no longer do. The recordings create a lot of tension, enough to inspire (as of now) two seasons of a series. She changed people. There are also questions, but she's no longer there to answer them. As a high school student, there's an obvious empty spot in class where she was seated.

I think, as Thomas Myron writes, having the main character care about the dead character is generally enough. All you need is to show they care. Hopefully this show can help you get some ideas.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.