Backstories are an integral part of your character creation. They inform everything from how your character speaks, to how they think, to how they interact with other people.
Sure, you might be able to figure out some of this organically, but it’s a lot harder if you’re not consciously thinking about what’s driving your character and what they’re potentially running away from.
Because let’s face it, most of us are running from something, even if we’re not consciously aware of it. Call me cynical.
Our past influences who we are now, who we want to be in the future, and who we turn into.
And in a world that’s demanding more authenticity from the celebrities and the politicians in the world, is it really any surprise that some of the most popular books, TV shows, and films of recent years have characters with deep emotional resonance?
This Is Us is a popular TV show—particularly in the States—and it even makes jokes about itself and how it’s a show where they cry and bare their feelings all the time. No wonder it’s less popular in the UK.
Even if you’re not writing something that heartfelt, being aware of your characters’ backstories can really help you nail how they interact with the rest of the world.
When you don’t know your characters backstories, however, there are issues you can face that can be detrimental to your writing now, and even more so as you get further into the process. Let’s explore some of the issues that you may face if you don’t know your characters’ backstories.
This is every author’s worst nightmare. Flat characters are harder to get material out of.
Even worse, they’re the kind of thing that causes readers to get very bored very quickly and therefore harms your book sales.
if you’ve got flat characters, there’s really no way around it other than to do the work to flesh out who they are and what’s driving them.
If you don’t know what’s driving them, what happened in their life, then how can they carry a whole book’s worth of conflict?
We don’t understand their motives
It’s always important to have solid motives for your antagonist because the best antagonists are the ones we really understand.
Two of the ones I—and many other writers—use as examples are Thanos and Killmonger from the MCU.
When you hear their arguments, they’re actually fairly logical.
Thanos feels that there aren’t enough resources to go around. What’s the fairest way to distribute those resources? It’s to get rid of half the population so that there’s more for those who are left. It’s his past that influenced this belief.
Killmonger, meanwhile, doesn’t understand why Wakanda wants to keep all of their resources to themselves. They’re in a privileged position, so why shouldn’t they help other Black people outside of that country?
Occasionally, there’s a successful character who just wants to see the world burn, such as Heath Ledger’s joker in The Dark Knight.
However, this is really hard to pull off. And I would argue even harder in a book because you have to get into those emotions that your characters are feeling.
Even if your antagonist isn’t a POV character, your main character still needs to respond to what they do and a lot of their interactions will be informed by their internal motives…
…and their internal motives will be informed by their backstory.
You also, of course, need to know the motives of your main character, particularly if you’re writing in close third or first person, because we’re in the head. The deeper into their head you get, the more realistic they’re going to feel for your reader. And the more likely it is your reader will be able to connect with them and want them to succeed.
Which means they’re more likely to keep reading.
Chemistry is harder
Chemistry is already one of those things that can be quite challenging to write. It’s a lot easier when your characters feel like real people to you because that chemistry will flow much more naturally.
If you don’t know who your characters are, what they want from life, and why they want those things, then how do you know how they’re going to respond to fighting for those things? Achieving those things? Different types of people?
For example if you’re writing a romance, your character might be afraid of love. This could mean when they come across someone they’re attracted to, they’re going to react with fear.
How does that feel look? How it looks will depend on their past experiences and why they’re afraid of love.
If you’re a writing fantasy or sci-fi book where someone has an issue with authority, than how are you going to show that issue was authority?
Again, that’s going to be informed by where their issues with authority come from. To know that you have to work out their backstory.
Their voices are all the same
Whether we want to admit it or not, our personalities, the way we interact with other people, and even the way we think, are related to our past. The same is true for characters.
If you don’t know who your characters are, it’s going to be a lot harder for them to each have distinct voices, meaning they’ll all blend together for your reader and your story will be harder to follow.
Those distinct voices are also what will make them memorable to reader and keep readers coming back.
It’s hard to read a book where everyone’s dialogue and mannerisms and personality are the same.
It also gets really boring after a while.
This is particularly important if you’re writing something that has multiple points of view.
Even if you’re writing in close third person rather than first person, you still need some level of understanding of their voice.
You also want to bring in some of their personality traits and the way they’d respond compared to one of your other characters, because that’s what will make each chapter or section written by that person unique and immediately throw your reader back into that person’s head.
There’s always the option of third person omniscient, but generally speaking, I’d advise against this these days, because frankly I don’t know any books written recently that are in this style that sell. It’s not a popular writing style anymore, as it’s seen as kind of old fashioned.
We live in an age driven by social media: we want to see into other people’s lives. We want more personable celebrities, and your characters are really no different.
You readers want to feel like they know your characters. They want to feel like they’re best friends with your characters. You therefore need to give them a unique voice so that readers can get behind each individual character.
How to show backstory
If you haven’t published yet it’s never too late to fix it.
And even if you have, there’s always the next book.
Writing a book is a marathon, not a sprint.
Writing itself is a journey where every book is a different process that teaches you something new.
There isn’t really an endpoint unless you only want to publish one book or series and then be done with it.
However, as many studies have shown, it’s continuous, purposeful practise that makes us the best in our field—and writing is no exception.
So, if you’d like to write more in-depth, psychologically informed backstory, you should checkout my new course, How to Write Brilliant Backstory.
We’ll delve into what makes your characters tick, and you’ll get some exclusive bonuses, including a 2-hour class on ways to show, not tell, how your character really feels based on how they interact with the world around them and what’s happened to them before.
If you’d like to grab these classes and some more shiny bonuses, checkout my course, How to Write Brilliant Backstory, now.