3

In my story, I follow a group of characters traveling across a post-nuclear wasteland. I’ve written all the characters (there are 7 of them in the group) their own unique backstories and whatnot, and I want to explore them, but I also want to avoid info-dumps.

So, that’s my question: how do I give out my characters' backstories in an organic way over the course of the story?

9

In every job interview I've ever had, when asked to tell something about myself I bring up the massive cake I had for my seventh birthday. You will not believe the size of this thing, or the time and skill that went into sculpting the marzipan princess posed on the top layer in a graceful plié. Almost too beautiful to eat, I had my parents completely fill up the two camera rolls - meant to document the party - with cake pictures. But in the end I'm glad I had a taste because--

Hey, why are your eyes glazing over? This is relevant backstory. You're just like those interviewers who asked me to move on to my employment history!

Backstory is incredibly important to characters for a variety of reasons. Past events shape us in everything we do. Our preferences, the choices we make, the people we love or hate, our bad and good traits, they're all influenced by how we've been hurt at some earlier point in life. A character who doesn't come across as having had a life before the book's first word immediately stands out as fake. But, much like my birthday cake story, that doesn't mean every detail is important.

Like sculpting statues, sharing backstory is a negative art. The master does not add material to the work, but chisels away at the existing layers to show the beauty which has been hiding in the rock all along.

The author could include ten pages of backstory at the start of a chapter to introduce a character. Include a full paragraph of the character reflecting on how much he misses his pre-apocalypse job at KFC, where he'd sneak a chicken wing when he was hungry and the manager didn't look. This isn't engaging writing. It all takes place in the character's head and a potential reader will likely yell 'get on with it' somewhere around page two of the flashback.

Alternatively, have a scene in which the character comes across a stray dog and shoots it, naps a flint, lets out a long and tired sigh, then reluctantly skins his kill. This scene takes place entirely in the present, but the 'long and tired sigh' hints at how life used to be different in the before days.

Does that mean you should never include backstory, ever? No, there very well might be points where you can and should. The 'writing rules' are suggestions at best, but in my own writing I have the 'rule' one of the following two qualifiers must be present for inclusion of backstory to be acceptable.

  1. Relevancy. Is the piece of backstory I am about to include relevant to the scene and the larger story? When a character engages in a fist fight with someone, it's relevant to know the character used to be a professional boxer. When having a tea party with his six year-old daughter, not so much.

  2. Necessity. Will my story make less sense if I leave out a piece of backstory? Then include it. The fact a character once nearly drowned when she forded a river and is now scared of large bodies of water is an important fact to mention when she decides to take the long way around a river she's currently standing in front of.

Do keep sections of backstory short. If you can't tweet it, delete it. The book you're writing should be about the most important thing to have ever happened in your character's life (or if you intend to write a sequel, the most important thing so far.) If the backstory is more interesting than the actual story, you have a big problem.

| improve this answer | |
3

There are a many creative ways you can do it without being too intrusive to the main story. Here are some examples

Breadcrumbs. Every now and again it's okay to break the cardinal rule of, "show don't tell" by giving a brief sentence or two about the characters past. You can also use subtle description about the characters past without actually telling the story.. Small revelations and hints will help entice your reader with mystery while not overwhelming them.

Example: Amber was always in and out of trouble since she was a kid.

You can also work in a bit of backstory through actions or expressions.

Example: Even twenty years on, Phaedra gazed across the horizon, the hope that one day her long lost lover should return.

Another approach which could work well is to tie in a flash back scene into your story. Perhaps devote an entire chapter to that scene, but just make sure it has relevance to the story.

One common technique used by many authors is a prologue. The prologue gives is like a backstory which gives context for everything that follows but is not actually the main story. That can be especially handy when your wanting a point of view other than that of your main protagonist.

| improve this answer | |
2

Work it into conflict

Background is boring because there is no conflict. Without conflict, there are no stakes. Without stakes, there isn't a scene.

So, find ways to make your character's background relevant to current conflict. A single sentence, with the right information at the right time, can do a HUGE amount of character development.

  • Are they lying? What about their background makes them able to lie well?
  • Did they fail to read the room? Why didn't they ever learn to read the room well?
  • Is someone angry at them? What aspect of their shared past does that person bring up to hurt them?
  • Etc.

Very little background comes out this way, but the background that does make it to the page can be extremely impactful.

Accept that most of your background information will never see the light of day.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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