BACKSTORY IS MEANINGFUL INFORMATION ABOUT A CHARACTER’S BACKGROUND.
EFFECTIVELY POSITIONED BACKSTORY ENHANCES CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT AND ADVANCES THE STORY.
Background facts about a character may influence the reader’s feelings and determine how the reader interprets the behaviors of the character. Multi-layered backstory may facilitate bonding with a character; or, if intended by the writer, the reverse may occur, and an aversion to or even a hatred for the character may result.
BACKGROUND INFORMATION STRATEGICALLY PLACED SUPPLIES KNOWLEDGE TO THE READER WITHOUT IMPEDING THE FORWARD THRUST OF THE STORY.
Backstory presented in long narrative form may interrupt the flow of the story.
Narrative paragraphs presenting facts about a character, especially if revealed before the reader is engrossed in the story, may slow down the reader’s enjoyment, interrupting the story’s flow like a commercial causes the viewer to detach from a movie scene. Even though the information may be crucial, if its placement in the story is not timely, or it is told in a manner that does not stir the reader’s emotion, its impact on the story may be less than it could have been.
For instance, if the reader knows that a character was orphaned, lived in a foreign country, moved to another country, married an abusive partner, had three children, and lost one child in a tragic accident, the reader may cultivate sympathy for the character’s eccentricities; or, alternatively, the reader may develop a dislike or disapproval of the character, all depending on the writer’s presentation of the facts.
Backstory facts presented in dialog may stir emotion and build the reader’s involvement with the character, increasing the story’s appeal.
“Mary, you seem to worry a lot. It’s not good for you, and it’s very distracting when we’re together. What causes your unrest?”
“I remember bad things from my past. I think these awful things could happen to me again,” she said.
John hesitated but decided to ask, “What happened to you?”
“I lived in Romania. My parents put me in an orphanage. After that, I was adopted,” she said.
“How did you get here?”
“My new parents moved from Romania to this country. I miss my real parents, and I had a brother, too. I don’t know where he is.”
John listened, remembering the day she stared at a young boy passing by. She said he looked like her brother, and her eyes had filled with tears as she watched him walk by.
“I married a man and he mistreated me. I was afraid of him, afraid to stay with him, and afraid to leave him. He threatened to kill me and our children.” She paused. “I try to think about good things, John, but sometimes I’m afraid.” Hesitating a moment longer, Mary went on, “I had three children with this man. He treated our children badly, too.”
“I didn’t know you had three children. I know only two of your children. What happened to the third child?”
“My youngest son was riding in a car with our neighbor. They had a terrible auto accident. My son was killed instantly. He was only five years old. Even though it was many years ago, I still miss him. Sometimes I have nightmares,” she said.
John wished he’d not spoken roughly to her. Wanting to comfort her but not knowing what to say, he put his arms around her shoulders and hugged her gently.
The writer determines if, when, and where to insert some, all, or bits of backstory, imparting meaningful information about a character’s background by expertly stating it and deliberately positioning it to increase the reader’s understanding and appreciation of the story. The rationale is to provide essential information at or near the time the reader needs to know.
See these excellent resources and gain expertise placing backstory wisely, enhancing a reader’s enjoyment and appreciation:
HOW TO WEAVE BACKSTORY INTO YOUR NOVEL SEAMLESSLY
When to Bring Backstory out of the Shadows – The Editor’s Blog
Backstory is still an art that gives me trouble…I tend to have a laser-like focus on moving the narrative forward…I always have to remind myself to consider the past as well…
I read somewhere that Hemingway didn’t bother with backstory, and he did well. Just sayin’. Blessings to you, Michael…
There is a fine line between too much and not enough back story. (I do have to admit that when I’m reading and come across paragraphs – or worse- pages of it, I skip it.)
I am worse than you about reading a lot of backstory. I will put down the book and forget to pick it up again.
When I wrote Buddy for David, I had a lot of backstory that I held back for insertion at just the right time. Most of it I discarded when I realized that the reader didn’t need to know it. Some backstory that I created helped me know the characters better, therefore, enabling me to present more realistic characters; yet, the same knowledge that influenced my portrayal of the characters was not relevant to the story. (This is my excuse for not finding a place for it. How do you like it?) There was also backstory that I did use, because it was easily presented in dialog, and it was necessary to tell the story. A long narrative paragraph would not have kept the reader engaged, while the lively dialog definitely did.
Thank you for your comment. I’m sure you know as much about the art of using backstory as I do. The more I learn; the more I want to write. It’s hard to find the time, isn’t it? I admire you for staying at it, when you have a family to care for at the same time. Blessings to you, Janna…
One key to backstory development is to know a lot more about your character than you actually tell. If you know your character that well, then dropping bits of his backstory into the novel will come more naturally.
Secondly, as you say, don’t tell too much at one time. Reveal only the parts that fit into the present story.
Thank you, Elisabeth. That is very good advice. The more we know about the characters we create, the more accurately we portray them, whether or not we slip all of the information bits into the pages of the story. Thanks for stopping by and for sharing your knowledge with us. Blessings to you…