Backstory: When Is It Necessary?

by Jami Gold on September 13, 2016

in Writing Stuff

Man holding picture of the back of his head with text: When Should We Reveal Backstory?

Last week, Janice Hardy of Fiction University visited with us here to share a great post about how we can find the right balance of backstory. As I mentioned at the end of that post, her insights gave me an idea for another post that explores a different way of looking at backstory—and here we are. *smile*

We often struggle with figuring out how much backstory to include, yet it’s an important element to get right. As I pointed out last time, too much backstory slows the pace, can feel irrelevant, and lead to repetition. Too little backstory can leave readers in the dark about characters’ motivations.

Janice shared several great tips for how to use backstory in her post, but I want to approach the question of “how much backstory?” from a different angle. Let’s take a look…

The Purpose of Backstory is Not

We often think about the purpose of backstory in terms of “what do readers need to know?” But that’s not quite clear enough.

With that perspective, it’s too easy to include too much backstory. We can rationalize that the reader needs to know because of X, Y, or Z reasons.

However, Janice hinted at a different purpose—a story purpose:

“You want to mention the things that are driving characters to act, not just things that happened in their pasts. Pick what’s important both to the character and to the story itself.”

In other words, if we think about backstory from the perspective of what a reader needs, we might come up with justifications to include irrelevant information. “Well, readers need to know that X happened because it’s a big part of the character’s past.”

Eh, maybe. Or maybe not. Depending on the story, even a big event in a character’s past could still be irrelevant to this story.

On the other hand, if we think about backstory from the perspective of what the story needs, we might come up with a different list. “Well, the story needs X to happen in the character’s past or else they’d never behave this way.”

If we can eliminate an event from a character’s backstory
and it doesn’t change this story at all,
it’s irrelevant, no matter how interesting it is.

The Purpose of Backstory Is

So the story purpose of backstory is slightly different from the reader purpose:

The story purpose of backstory is to explain or provide context for a character’s motivations.

Does that feel too limiting? Does that seem like we wouldn’t be able to include much backstory if we followed that perspective?

Remember that “motivations” covers a lot of character development:

  • Why are they saying what they’re saying?
  • Why are they doing what they’re doing?
  • Why are they planning what they’re planning?
  • Why are they thinking what they’re thinking?

Character motivations are the key to all those “why” questions. So there’s no shortage of opportunities to explain the answers.

That said, we shouldn’t consider this a free pass to include all the backstory we want as long as it answers a why question. *smile*

Many Elements Contribute to Character Motivations

If someone asked our character “How are you?,” we wouldn’t need any particular backstory to explain why they answer “Fine, thanks.” The same applies to our story.

The vast majority of the time, all those why questions will have obvious answers. No backstory required.

Some of the elements that contribute to character motivations include:

  • Immediate Needs: Food, water, sleep, etc.
  • Triggered in Current Scene: Reacting to events in that scene, such as reacting to what another character said or did.
  • Triggered in Previous Scene: Continuation of motivation from previous scene, such as acting on an already-stated goal or avoiding already-mentioned consequences.

In each of those cases, the cause is obvious, so no explanation—from backstory or any other technique—is necessary.

Explanation Is Necessary When…

So how can we tell when backstory is necessary to explain a character’s motivations?

Step #1: Is the Effect a Mismatch for the Cause?

While motivations are often anchored in obvious causes, other times they’ll bubble up from a deeper place within our character. In those cases, a simple cause-and-effect chain won’t explain their reaction to the current trigger.

So readers would need more information to understand why the character feels compelled to act or react a certain way even though it doesn’t quite fit the current situation. Going back to our “How are you?” question, readers would want an explanation if our character answered by punching the person. *grin*

What un-obvious information do readers need to know
to understand the character’s motivations
for their thoughts, behaviors, or actions in this scene?

Step #2: Is Backstory the Best Way to Explain?

Just because there’s a mismatch doesn’t mean we need to launch into backstory. We could instead…:

  • hint at a fear or longing that hadn’t been mentioned before
  • give more details about their current mood
  • reveal a long-term goal or need
  • use internal dialogue to explain their thoughts, etc.

Sometimes, however, the questions we ask reveal that the explanation lies deeper within our character:

  • Why is such-and-such so important to them?
  • Why are they expecting the worst in this situation?
  • Why are they acting against their objective best interest?

That deeper source (or cause) for their actions, thoughts, or behaviors often points to a need for backstory. Even so, we wouldn’t necessarily want to explain everything right away. A little mystery can be good for keeping readers curious enough to turn pages. *smile*

Does the explanation for their motivations
lie deep within their character?

Step #3: Can Readers Connect with the Character?

So we’ve decided that explanation is necessary and that backstory is the best approach to provide that explanation. When should we reveal that backstory?

Curiosity and readers’ questions are good (in general). However, most stories would suffer if all those questions sat around until the end—no matter how much they make our readers curious.

A deep understanding of why someone does what they do increases our empathy. We feel more connected to those we understand. That connection works within the context of our story as well.

When readers feel connected to our characters, a desire to see the characters succeed will keep them turning pages even more than a case of simple curiosity. So we need to reveal enough backstory during relevant scenes to help readers feel connected to our characters.

In addition, during certain points of our story, our character might speak, act, or behave in a way that could make them unlikable or unrelatable or destroy the connection readers feel with them. Maybe they say something downright mean to an innocent or other likable character, or maybe they behave in a disloyal or dishonest way.

In those cases, readers could stop rooting for our character. If a character does something unforgivable—without explanation—readers might lose the desire and curiosity to answer the question: Will they succeed in their goal?

For most stories, that means when our characters do something unlikable or unrelatable, an explanation (or at least a strong hint) of their motivations might be necessary to preserve a reader’s understanding and empathy.

Example: The Unlikable Romance Hero

Many stories in the romance genre feature unlikable heroes, and he’s often extra mean to the heroine at the beginning of the story. Even though the romance genre requires a happy ending, readers still want to see a hint upfront of his potential to be better.

So the first scene or two from the hero’s point of view will usually give a backstory hint to prevent readers from hating him:

  • “Women weren’t to be trusted. He’d learned that lesson too well from his ex.”
  • “Just like his father, he made sure he was always in control. Cooperation was for the weak.”
  • “The last thing he wanted was to be responsible for her security. He didn’t need the reminder of his last failure to keep someone safe.”

Those hints of backstory wounds from an untrustworthy ex, an unyielding father, or a dangerous failure illuminate how the character can grow and improve, which makes the reader root for them to succeed.

Do readers need to understand more right now
to maintain empathy or a connection with the character?

As we draft, we’ll often include more backstory than we need because we’re discovering our story. But once we’re in revision mode or have feedback from beta readers or editors, we’ll want to take a closer look at all of our backstory segments.

  • Are they relevant to this story?
  • Do they provide context for our character’s motivations by revealing a cause event that can best be explained outside of current story events?
  • Do they give only as much information as needed to explain the story and provide context for motivations and/or to maintain reader connection, understanding, or empathy?

Backstory can be a wonderful tool for making our characters three-dimensional, layered, and deserving of readers’ interest. So while backstory can slow down our story’s pacing, we wouldn’t want to eliminate all instances of it. Hopefully, a better understanding of the story purpose for backstory will help us wield the tool with skill. *smile*

Do you struggle with knowing when backstory is needed? Do you tend to include too much too quickly? Do you disagree with this perspective of focusing on character motivations? Can you think of other reasons we might have for including backstory? Do these steps help you know when to include backstory?

Pin It
17 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

dolorah September 13, 2016 at 9:33 am

I find it easier to limit the amount of necessary backstory for my villains than for my hero’s 🙂 I have a file labeled “deleted scenes” for my longer stories; that way I can cut unnecessary backstory without feeling like I’ve deleted the character’s development.

This is important info to keep aware of. Thanks Jami.

Reply

Jami Gold September 13, 2016 at 10:58 am

Hi Dolorah,

Great point about our antagonists! We often have a different attitude toward them. 🙂

I usually have to add backstory to my villains… “Okay but why are they evil?” LOL!

And I love your tip about pasting deleted backstory snippets into a “deleted file” so we’re not erasing that development. Those snippets might make for great bonus material on our website too. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

Reply

Noelle Greene September 13, 2016 at 11:29 am

Backstory is so challenging! I’m always searching for a better way to get it in there without clunky chunks of dialogue and introspection. Don’t always succeed. It’s ridiculous how much crap I write that I end up not using.
Thanks for this. I’m in revisions now and so this discussion is timely and helpful!

Reply

Jami Gold September 13, 2016 at 6:50 pm

Noelle,

I’m always struggling with finding the best balance of elements too, so I understand. 🙂 Good luck with your revisions, and thanks for the comment!

Reply

Serena Yung September 13, 2016 at 8:12 pm

Oh, I especially liked your point about putting in bits of backstory to explain why a character is being mean. I started writing a new story, and one of the heroes thinks some unkind thoughts; I’m a bit nervous about this, as I want the readers to adore him as much as I do, so I was trying to soften his phrasing to deal with this problem. Yet, this backstory explanation method might help to make him more likable too!

I recently thought about the importance of creating a “positive first impression” with the reader for some main characters. Or at least “positive early impression” if they don’t look that likable in our first meeting with them. Of course, a story isn’t doomed if the character doesn’t start off as lovable, but it would definitely help to keep readers emotionally connected to my story if they liked my protagonist! The protagonist in the story I was editing would be what you’d call adorable, comical, but maybe not “likable” per se. So yeah, I’m thinking about what I should do and if I should use a different starting scene.

Reply

Jami Gold September 14, 2016 at 7:57 am

Hi Serena,

Exactly! Depending on the story or the character, it might be best to tone down their unlikability or give hints to help readers understand them. We might need feedback or to experiment before knowing the most effective method.

Oh, that’s a great question about the best starting scene to create a character impression. I don’t have a tried and true approach, but I’ll ponder and see if I can think of some guidelines. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Serena Yung September 14, 2016 at 8:43 pm

Yeah, I remember that post about making Alex and Elaina more likable! (Though I already thought Elaina was very likable from the beginning, lol.)

Haha, I was thinking in terms of meeting a new acquaintance/ future friend for the first time, and how you want to make a good first impression. But even if your first impression of them was meh or even downright negative, it is possible for our opinion of them to improve over time when you get to know them more. The opposite may also happen when you like them so much at first, but as you interact with them more frequently, you start to dislike them because you didn’t think that they would be so XYZ… So I figured it would be a similar situation with our characters! I’ve certainly had “hate to love” as well as “love to hate” feelings towards other people’s story characters, haha.

Reply

Clare O'Beara September 14, 2016 at 5:05 am

Great look at needed backstory.
I find it is required to understand the protagonist if he/she is a complex person or in a complex situation.
As for the antagonist, I can’t think how many YA books I’ve reviewed saying “but just because she is rich doesn’t make her a bad person. Why is she so snobby and nasty? Would her parents know or approve of this?” A nasty rich character is a lazy – as in stereotyped – character. On occasion the author has then provided a little backstory in a later book to explain why the teen antagonist is behaving badly. This usually rounds the teen and makes her slightly more sympathetic.

Reply

Jami Gold September 14, 2016 at 8:04 am

Hi Clare,

“I find it is required to understand the protagonist if he/she is a complex person or in a complex situation.”

Love this insight! 😀 Yes, if we don’t provide enough information for readers to even understand that the situation is complex, Occam’s razor is going to make them assume the most simplistic explanation for the character’s motivations. If we don’t want that–because it will create reader disappointment later, lead to readers feeling disconnected, cause confusion, etc.–we need to at least hint that there might be more going on than they’d assume.

You’re also right about the lazy, stereotypical approach to antagonists. While we likely won’t go into details, just a line or two can hint at more depth. Thanks for the fantastic comment! 🙂

Reply

Clare O'Beara September 16, 2016 at 3:09 am

Glad to chip in if my words can help someone else.

Reply

Janice Hardy September 14, 2016 at 7:03 am

I love how you expanded this!

Reply

Jami Gold September 14, 2016 at 8:05 am

Hi Janice,

Thank you for the inspiration! 😀

Reply

What do you think?

17 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Previous post:

Next post: