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Many characters have a backstory and it is usually sad. However I do wonder, when is it that you have to reveal a character's backstory. I've watched some videos of writers explaining how to reveal a backstory and most importantly when we have to reveal it to the audience/readers. And they told me to do it not too long after we meet the character or mid-way in the plot. Some also suggested making them act a certain way or learn about their motives and intentions then we reveal their backstory. But it is to explain the character's role in the plot

However, when I watched a well-written show, they showed us a backstory of a character immediately after the character just got hit on the face and before they got sent onto a trial. And I wonder, is there a proper timing and execution to reveal a backstory? I mean, one of the reasons why Demon Slayer is not that good in writing is because of how they reveal the character's backstory right before they die or right when they die.

I asked writers from a Discord server and they say that it depends on the flow of the story, but I'm still confused about it.

4 Answers 4

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Reveal It Whenever It Has the Most Emotional Impact

Like many things in writing, there is no one "right" way to do everything. You could reveal the backstory of the character at the beginning of the story, the middle, or the end. The important question to keep in mind is: when will this reveal have the most impact?

The whole point of a backstory is that it's meant to help us see the character in a new light. It fleshes out their motivations and gives reason for their actions. For example, when we first meet the character, they have killed a close friend of the protagonist. Because of this, we as the audience are led to believe that they are a heartless monster.

But then it is revealed that the character only killed that person because they murdered his entire family in cold blood.

This shows us as the audience that things may not be as black and white as we initially thought. It serves as a double punch because we learn that a character we thought was the bad guy actually had a point, and a person we thought was a good person might have been a horrible monster.

Here are some things to avoid:

1-Try not to exposition dump. Worldbuilding is at its best when the audience is slowly being fed important information and context clues, even without them necessarily realizing it.

You don't want to hit the audience with every last piece of information about the character's backstory at the same time. Especially if it's deep and complex.

"I was born in the kingdom of Meltros, and my wife was killed in a horrible fire, which inspired me to kill the evil king who ordered my wife's death...Now let me monologue about how I became a wizard's apprentice, found the sword of darkness buried in a stone, and how I paid my taxes, and brushed my teeth. I have the strangest compulsion to let you in on all the most intimate details of my life, almost as if I'm being compelled by some invisible author to give my backstory."

It's better to drip-feed the audience information over time.

First, you notice how the character is always looking at a locket of someone.

Another character accidentally mentions the character's wife, and the man freezes up, saying he does not want to talk about it.

Then you notice that there is a horrible burn mark under his shirt.

The character also has a strange obsession with bringing down the Empire, and he fights with more fervor than anyone on the team.

After building it up for a while, then you finally drop the information bomb that the woman in the locket is his wife, she's dead, and he was there in the fire that killed her, and he still has the burn marks to remind him.

Take your time to foreshadow what the character's backstory is first. Then the information will be more satisfying when the full story comes out.

2-Timing is everything.

If the backstory is twelve pages long, you don't want to shove it in the middle of a high-action scene just because you really wanted to add a bunch of unnecessary information.

Let's say the characters Robin and Jay are in the middle of a life-or-death fight...and then we interrupt that fight halfway to have a flashback about an unrelated character, Raven, and her tragic backstory.

You don't want to interrupt the action just to drop more exposition about the characters, not unless you have a good reason for it, such as you are intentionally trying to leave the audience on a cliffhanger.

Don't have the characters drone on about their past struggles for too long, or you risk losing the audience's interest. If you're gonna have a scene where they sit down and tell people their backstory, really take the time to plan out the scene. Show us how the past experience has affected the character. Make it deep but concise. No matter what, do not break the story's flow.

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  • "I have the strangest compulsion to let you in on all the most intimate details of my life, almost as if I'm being compelled by some invisible author to give my backstory." This sentence could be an extract from the first chapter of the very successful novel The name of the wind
    – Stef
    Apr 28, 2022 at 12:51
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As @nyctophobia457 says, there is no one right time. There's no formula where you can say, "You should reveal the backstory 37% of the way through the novel" or some such. It ... depends.

I would generally avoid revealing a backstory too late. If you wait to reveal it until just before it is relevant, it looks like you just made it up on the spot to justify the next scene. Readers expect a character to be developed or revealed over time. And if you wait too long, you may have to provide other explanations for the character's actions and motivations throughout the story, or nothing will make sense.

There are stories where a backstory is revealed early so that we understand the character's motivation as the story unfolds. There are stories where the backstory is revealed later, so that puzzling things the character did earlier in the story suddenly make sense. It depends on what you're trying to accomplish.

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I see a lot of people say you shouldn't add the backstory at the beginning of your story, I feel as if that's true. Why? let me break it down

If you start your book with a backstory of your protagonist the reader will have no reason to learn more about your character, presumably not even want to continue reading your book because what's the use of learning almost everything about your character in the first chapter? It would be best to learn about the character throughout the story, I'll give you some ideas.

Readers can find out about the character's past: your character can have something happen to them or a certain event or even an item can remind them of their past, example: a certain flower can remind your protagonist of its mother and how their mother used to smell in the past/in their childhood. Try to hint their past throughout the story. Your reader should not just follow your plot, the character matters too, therefore, make your character a priority. The reader should also learn about the character and follow our character throughout the story/plot. This will also give the reader a chance to sympathize with the character while also at the same time following the plot of the story. This is very important if you want to make a realistic, likeable protagonist. It would annoy the readers to have so much information about one topic (a character) just thrown at them so effortlessly, it will overwhelm them.

That's why I think you should add the backstory throughout the story, or you can add a long backstory in the middle of your book, but mainly its suggested to add hints and flashbacks or reminders of your characters past, if you have a great beginning, and a interesting character that will intrigue the reader to read on they will also want to learn more about your character so it will motivate them to read on, to know that they'll be understanding and learning more about this characters past and what shaped them as the person they are in the book, because they liked and connected with the protagonist from the beginning. I hope this helps and makes sense.

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Think of the back story as part of your story. Of course, if your work is short and the back story is comparatively long and detailed, that thread risks derailing all the rest. In my novel, "Ukraine Skies, Baltimore Lights," I provided the back story for many characters in stand-alone chapters, sometimes before the incident where the reader's understanding of the character will change perceptions about character motives... sometimes afterward (so the reader might exclaim, "aha!"). You can also use dialog between characters to share the backstory, either after one character specifically asks, "Why did you do that?" or perhaps more casually in passing.

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