How to Develop Your Characters’ Backstory by Tristan Stocker

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Character
Reedsy 2023

Tristan Stocker

Crafting a story isn’t just about stringing words together to create shocking plot twists and vividly described settings. The true magic is found in giving life to characters that resonate with readers in a profound way. One crucial way to increase this depth of connection is to imbue your characters with a deep and captivating backstory.

A well-crafted backstory can transform a character from mere words on a page to a living, breathing entity that captivates your audience. Imagine this: your protagonist, an apparently reclusive historian, conceals a tapestry of secrets from a past life of treasure hunting. Or your antagonist, a public philanthropist, is tangled in deceit rooted in childhood trauma.

This is your guide to developing your characters’ backstory, a fundamental step towards creating narratives that linger in the minds (and hearts!) of your readers.

People evolve over time

You probably have a strong idea of who your characters are in the present, but when exploring backstories, it’s important to keep in mind that people evolve over time. While it’s obviously important to keep some level of continuity between their past and present personalities, having differences shows how they have evolved — just as a person in real life is changed by events, relationships, and important experiences.

Example: Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader

Take Anakin Skywalker from Star Wars, who was initially a heroic Jedi, yet succumbed to the dark side of the Force and became the menacing Darth Vader. This contrast between his past as a Jedi Knight and his transformation into the galaxy’s most feared villains adds a tragic element to his character.

The above example is an extreme shift from good to evil, and your characters need not experience such a paradigm shift. Instead, a backstory is a good opportunity to explore events that may have substantially changed your character. Becoming jaded after being cheated on in a past relationship or being grateful due to escaping a terrible situation are both examples of helpful backstory.

There is always space for static characters, as long as you understand the difference between dynamic and static characters and intentionally keep some characters static. Some antagonists are intentionally written to be evil to their core with no redeeming features, but a somewhat sympathetic villain with a tragic backstory can help explain their actions.

Example: The Grinch

The mean actions of the Grinch can be explained by his past experience of being continuously bullied as a child, driving him to anger against Christmas.

People change in real life, and so should your characters. Their backstory can be used to show how they were different and what led them to evolve over time.

A plausible backstory

Tragic backstories can be like tightrope walks – thrilling, even mesmerizing, but one mistake and you’re plummeting into melodrama territory. Crafting a tragic or dramatic backstory might seem like a natural choice, and often works well, yet it’s essential to not go too far. Too much suffering endured by your protagonist (or even antagonist!) may risk losing plausibility within the context of your narrative or start feeling gratuitous to readers — this is a common mistake encountered in creative writing classes, and one writing instructors are used to spotting

Experiencing past tragedy can be an engaging and realistic story tool. However, too much tragedy and this tool can backfire. Witnessing parents’ murder? Check. Addicted to substances? Check. Family killed in car crash? Checkmate. At a certain point, tragedy stops adding compassion and depth and instead starts feeling unnecessary. Unless your character is intentionally written as the unluckiest person in history, consider decreasing the melodrama. Remember, less is often more when it comes to backstories and a well-placed scar can resonate more than a laundry list of tragedy.

The art of selective revelation

While it’s crucial for you as the writer to get to know your character and their backstory closely, it can feel necessary to reveal the same information to your readers. Instead, keeping some details vague or unanswered can have a greater impact.

Example: Severus Snape from Harry Potter

J.K Rowling initially portrays Snape as an archetypal villain. However, in the seventh book, he is revealed to have a complex and tragic backstory. His love for Harry’s mother and his role as a double agent adds layers to his character, making him much more than the antagonist he seemed to be.

Rowling chose to withhold this information for six books, divulging only clues and letting readers create their own theories. When the truth is finally revealed, the plot twist is shocking and emotional.

Selectively revealing backstory is an excellent way to not only avoid overwhelming your readers, but also to build tension throughout a book.

Motivations and goals

Backstories can be incredibly useful in explaining a character’s current actions and personality, and even make them more sympathetic. A character’s motivation can be influenced by anything, big or small. Whether that’s a single event that changes the course of their life or their childhood as a whole, a character’s personal history informs their current actions.

Example: Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games

While not driven by a singular desire for vengeance, Katniss’ journey is partially due to her father’s death in a mine explosion. This fuels her determination to protect her family and fight against the oppressive Capitol responsible for her loss.

Were your character’s friends or family affected by criminals, massive corporations, or natural disasters in their past? These might drive your character to be a vigilante, fight against capitalist systems, or be a talented first responder. Present actions explained by past experiences are more interesting than arbitrary goals. One way to flesh out your characters’ motivations is by working through a story template that encourages you to consider what makes your characters multidimensional — why not have a go?.

Bonus tip

Here’s a quick tip that’s just worth mentioning! When thinking about backstories, authors often think about using flashbacks. This technique can be successful, particularly if it holds significant emotional impact, but flashbacks have become a little cliché and can hinder the narrative flow. Instead consider other ways of revealing a character’s backstory naturally.

This could be achieved through:

  • Observations & reactions. Use the character’s reactions to the present environment to unveil their backstory.
  • Dialogue. Integrating a character’s backstory into natural conversations can provide a seamless way to reveal their history.
  • Internal monologues. These offer a direct perspective into your character’s thoughts and is an opportunity to let them grapple with memories from their past.

Flashbacks can be a useful technique, but shouldn’t be used as a crutch to explain the backstories of every character! Make sure to use a variety of methods to keep readers engaged.

I hope this advice has been helpful! If you’ve been struggling with how to develop or implement your characters’ backstory, know that it’s something that many writers find challenging, but carefully considering each choice you make will help you craft complex and compelling characters.

(c) Tristan Stocker

Tristan Stocker is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace and blog that helps authors with figuring out everything from writing a picture book query letter to hiring a writing coach and choosing between traditional and self-publishing. He lives in London.

About the author

Tristan Stocker is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace and blog that helps authors with figuring out everything from writing a picture book query letter to hiring a writing coach and choosing between traditional and self-publishing. He lives in London.

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