A friend and I are writing a story based on our characters. We brainstormed some ideas and now we know what the basic idea of our story is going to be. But I'm having a little trouble with the prologue, I was going to make it the backstory of the main character so that if someone reads it they'll understand what's going on with the character and why they're in the situation they're in now. So I'm just wondering does that make any sense? Can we use the prologue to give the backstory?
Prologues are usually boring, because they are almost inevitably history lessons that have no suspense or action and they feel like a history lesson, right after lunch, and a snooze fest.
You would be better off skipping it, and giving an actual origin story: Think, for example, of Spiderman. You start out in Peter Parker's normal world, before he is a superhero, learn about his family, him being in love with a girl he is NOT destined to get, etc. Then he gets bit by the spider, and transforms, and gains reasons to fight crime, and becomes a hero to the girl, etc, etc, etc.
Origin stories are interesting, the normal world for the character is interesting. Even if you already know Peter is going to BE Spiderman (Spiderman is on the cover), as a reader the origin story has conflict, and you wonder exactly what will happen, and you keep turning pages to find out what happens next.
"What happens next" is the essence of a good story, a "page turner" has readers literally turning pages! Why? To find out what happens next! Not to read yet more history lesson, and background, and how he felt in school, etc.
Show us the background, with scenes and conflicts, danger and heartbreak and elation and victories, don't give us a dry lecture about the past. Most of it, we just don't really need to know.
For example, if some incident X makes Joe terrified of dogs, we pretty much can infer that by seeing Joe terrified of dogs. We really don't need a reason, and the backstory can be one line from Joe to a friend, "A Rottweiler bit the hell out me when I was a kid, and I can't get over it, man, no matter how much I try." But ONLY when it actually happens in the story, and that should ONLY happen if it is important to the story.
Say it influences the plot by changing Joe's decisions, or it creates a personality difference in Joe that changes how other characters feel about him, or treat him, or sympathize with him. If this fear makes him (or others) change their plans. Or it makes Joe want to change and finally do something about it. If it doesn't move somebody in a different direction, or define their personality in a way that matters, it can be left out because it literally doesn't matter to the story.
You can do this even if the backstory is far in the past. For example, notice the first scene in the first Harry Potter is shown in present tense, Dumbledore and others immediately after the murder of Harry's parents. But then JK Rowling just starts the 2nd chapter "Nearly ten years had passed since [main event of the first chapter]", and focuses on Harry thereafter.
That is a little clumsy; but does help to introduce the magic and wizardry early in the first act (any kind of superpowers should be teased early). It is kind of a prologue in scene's clothing.
But if you don't want to have a scene like that, you can have your character reveal elements of their backstory in dialogue with somebody important and new in their life; somebody they are saving, or are partnering up with, or seeking assistance from, a romantic interest, etc. In other words, you can introduce what is called a "foil", somebody that doesn't know the MC's past, so when the MC tells them, the reader learns it too.
Just don't make this telling an alternative way to infodump. It is a conversation, not a speech or interview. The foil should never really say "tell me more" or "go on" or anything similar. Quite often, in real conversation, one person's story reminds a listener of their own story or some story they heard, and that is their reply. Sharing, not interviewing. Or asking a question that turns the speaker in a new direction, so the listener doesn't feel like a prop; it feels like they have some control over what they are talking about. But dialogue is a different art; we have posts here on this stack about how to do that.
It can, but there are other ways you might want to handle it. The risk of making a prologue a backstory is you might end up with an info dump. Sometimes they are useful, but take it too far and you risk alienating the reader.
There is the iceberg method where most of what you create never appears in your work and only exists to colour and inform what you write, making it more subtle.
I tend to sprinkle information throughout my piece, trying to minimize the info dumps.
One character of mine spent years infiltrating Columbian cartels and eventually destroying one responsible for the death of her brother. Knowing this influences how I write her, but the most that is revealed directly to the reader is that she once worked for a cartel, maybe one line about destroying those responsible for the death. Sometimes I have her compare her current situation with her previous, but I do not give more information than is required.
For my main character, you meet him before you learn a word about his history. He reflects a moment and the reader learns he and his sister are close and why. Much later, I have a character ask him directly about the incident, which he then describes.
Depending on the type of story you want to write, the prologue could work quite well. Just be careful, backstory can be like spice - you don’t want to overdo it but strike that balance.
Prologues are something that need to be handled carefully - otherwise, you may wind up giving too much information about a character/world that the reader doesn't care about yet.
If you have a lot of backstory and you feel like it's slowing down the plot later on, there's another approach you can try: make the backstory part of your plot. Instead of sneaking in a series of history lessons later on, start your story with your character's history being made.
Aim for more than just a prologue - take an important part of your character's life and make it into its own story arc. Show the events that led your characters to become the people they are today. How did they react to that situation? If it's done well, the reader can easily understand how your characters act now. (The other characters may still need the occasional explanation, but this should help keep the explanations from becoming a distraction.)
Yes, you can. And many authors do. But, as others have pointed out, it's something you need to tread carefully with.
My novel has a prologue (and an epilogue). I had it in my head since I conceived of my story and knew I wanted it there. My main character is a 12 year old girl living in the United States in 1995. The prologue is about her grandmother as a child. It sets up the main theme of my book and gives necessary historical background that's important for all the American characters.
When I wrote it, I wasn't sure if I should do it that way. I've heard all the negatives about using prologues. So I spoke at length about it to my critique group. They all love the prologue and think it should be separate. I had thought about using flashback or exposition or another method to relay the information and they thought a prologue was the best method and that it did not detract from the story. When I'm done, I'll see what my beta readers says. And then I'll, hopefully, have input from a publisher.
Using another example, my spouse has a comic series and, instead of a prologue (which would never work in this medium due to length breakdowns and publishing spacing), has put the background/setup of the heroes into sections of a few pages in each of the first few issues. It's necessary and the sections are fine, but some reviewers found it confusing. By the third issue, it all makes sense. There wasn't really another way to do this.
For other stories, the background information can come out piecemeal. This can help the reader engage with the story more. But it only works if the information can wait until the reader is immersed in the story. Another method is to amp up the background until it overfills a mere prologue and becomes a "Part." This has the disadvantage of upsetting the reader who enjoyed the characters and story and didn't want a huge time jump or location/character change.
Ultimately, the question is "does a prologue make my story better?"
It's an effective way to convey backstory, but it's not always the best way. Think about what you want the reader to know when, if the information can wait, and get feedback from a writer's group or friends about what does and doesn't work.