This is something I’ve been asked quite a lot. Many writers really enjoy the world building process, and maybe the character creation process, but then they sit down to write and feel like they’ve already said everything.
Or, they spend so much time doing all this work, then they feel like they have to use all of it, or all of that hard work has gone to waste.
This can lead to large paragraphs or even pages of info dumps which often aren’t relevant to your plot.
So how do you know if you’re including too much—or too little—backstory in your work in progress?
Is it relevant to your plot?
I ask myself this question in regards to all my scenes and characters when I’m in the planning stages, and again when I edit.
It’s not always comfortable to admit that a character, conversation, or maybe even an entire chapter needs to be cut. But it’s a necessary evil.
- Is it driving your main plot forward?
- Does it contribute to a side plot?
- Does it add anything (relevant) to a character?
If the answer to all of these questions is no, it’s time to get the scissors out ✂️
How are you telling it?
Chances are, the way you first write or discover your characters’ backstories won’t be how they need to be told in your book. For instance, you may discover a backstory when free writing about a character.
There are certainly instances where you can include an explanation of what drives your character, but it will be much more interesting if you drip feed this information through how they interact with other people, how they speak, and even how they treat themselves.
For example, someone who’s self-conscious about their appearance, maybe because they were bullied for how they looked by school friends, an ex-partner, or family members, may prefer to wear baggy clothes to hide their shape.
They may also make self-deprecating comments about their appearance as well as about their general personality, attitude, or behaviour. They may even find ways to make themselves invisible through not eating enough, eating too much, or bad posture.
Showing these things first, before going into their backstory, will make your character much more realistic.
Are you info dumping?
Look, I get it. You’ve figured out something really cool/traumatic/interesting about your character’s life pre-novel and you really want to share it with your reader.
Maybe you feel like your reader needs to know that to really understand your character.
Well…stop right there.
If they need to know that to understand your character, your character is missing something.
How many people in your life do you know the whole life story of?
You know your life story.
But you can see the impact other people’s histories have on them by how they react to what happens to them in the present, and also how they respond to potential future events.
If you do know someone’s history, it’s likely that they left some things out, either intentionally or unintentionally. We humans are very unreliable narrators.
So, really, you still don’t know the whole thing and probably never will. And that’s fine.
Your reader doesn’t need to know all of your characters’ backstories either, and they definitely don’t need to know them in the form of a very long paragraph, section, or chapter.
These long sections are called info dumps, and they can be painful to read no matter how pretty your prose is.
They’re even more painful when they’re rammed down a reader’s throat in the opening of your novel, when they really couldn’t give less of a fuck about your main character’s history.
No, really. They care more about their annoying neighbour’s backstory because they already have an emotional response to that neighbour. It doesn’t matter if their emotional response is positive or negative, what matters is that there is one. That’s then motivation to want to know what makes someone tick, because we’re curious and nosy like that.
Until your reader gives a fuck about your character, they have no reason to want to know why your character behaves the way they do. So please, I beg you, don’t info dump in your intro!
Readers are increasingly wanting pace over prose, meaning if you break up your pace with too much backstory or description, they’re going to be closing your book and not finishing it.
The solution? All the other points in this post 😉
Are you dropping hints?
As I mentioned above, backstory works best when you drip feed it to your readers.
You want to hint that something is compelling a character to behave in a certain way without outright explaining why.
Maybe you start off by saying that something happened with their parents when they were younger, then you say they were raised by their mum, then later on you say that their dad passed away in a car accident. If you give that away straight away, it can backfire.
It doesn’t always—there are instances where it does work. For instance, at the start of What Happens in New York I mention that Fayth lost her sister and mother in a car accident because it’s her inciting incident.
It’s later revealed that another character’s misdemeanours are because he also lost a family member in a similar way. If I’d revealed this about him sooner, it wouldn’t have been as relevant to the story and would’ve therefore had less impact on the other characters and the reader.
But it really depends on what you want to achieve, and what part of your plot it’s relevant to.
Are you telling it at the right time?
Backstory is most powerful when it comes at a point when we care about the characters and it’s relevant to what’s happening.
Let’s use the example of a main character confessing to a love interest that a parent left them when they were young and they’re therefore afraid to let other people into their life in case they leave, too.
If you tell this at the wrong moment, it can ruin your build up and the momentum you’ve built with your characters.
Telling it at the right moment will have a deeper emotional impact on the other characters and your reader; it will put all of the character’s behaviour into perspective. It won’t necessarily justify it, especially if it’s bad behaviour, but it will explain it.
If there’s no right time to tell this backstory, I’d question whether it’s relevant for your character, and whether it’s relevant for your book at all.
There are some instances where you may know something really intimate about your character that you really want to talk about, but it just doesn’t fit.
Don’t shoehorn it in, because your readers will be able to tell.
Including it later, when the reader cares more about your characters, means they may not mind when you shoe horn it in. But it will still affect the pacing of your story, risking making it a less engaging read than it would’ve been if you’d just kept it flowing.
In Afterlife Calls, one of my characters is a 4000-year-old Ancient Egyptian sort-of mummy.
I haven’t explained why or how he was cursed yet because it was something I didn’t want to gloss over in his introductory book.
If and when I do explore it, I want it to be a pivotal point for his character and really show how he loves and respects his new friends in the 21st century.
If I’d covered it in The Mummy’s Curse, when we first meet him, it wouldn’t have made sense. This is a deeply traumatic memory for him. He was cursed, mummified, and trapped in a sarcophagus for 4000 years. Why would he share how and why that happened with someone he met five minutes ago? Why would he want to relive that as soon as he’s woken up?
To relive that—and the events that came up to that point—requires a level trust and openness that he’s not going to have with them that soon.
Of course everyone is different. Like some people may talk about traumatic events in an off-hand, blasé kind of way. This is a coping mechanism, usually experienced by people who are able to emotionally disconnect.
I say this as someone who can sometimes emotionally disconnect from certain situations. However, it doesn’t always come across well in real life, and it can come across even worse in fiction, so be very careful if you write a character this emotionally disconnected.
How to discover your characters’ backstories
The key to great backstory is an understanding of psychology. This understanding means you know your character’s internal motivations and therefore how they react to other people and their environment.
This understanding allows them to become active participants in your plot, driving it forwards based on their own actions—for better or worse—rather than people the plot just happens to.
When your plot just happens to your characters, they feel like passive observers who could be switched out for anyone else and it’d be exactly the same story.
You don’t want that. Your characters are a key part of what makes your story unique. Why not lean into that?
How they react to what’s happening around them makes your plot more interesting. And how they react is a direct response to what happened to them before your book, aka their backstory.
All this also makes your readers care more about what happens to your characters, in your world, and in your story.
If you’d like a deeper understanding of how psychology can impact your characters and drive them forward, checkout my new course, How to Write Better Backstories, available to stream now.