Friday, January 22, 2016

Backstory, Part 1 – Why You Need It

Let me tell you two little story beginnings:

A fifteen-year-old street thief runs away from his gang leader and boards a ship setting sail for an island far, far away. He’s running because his gang leader wanted him to kill. Again.
So the boy runs. He runs and runs and finds himself running to things far worse than what he’d fled from.

A twenty-nine-year-old noblewoman schemes just as much as the rest, but deep down she hates her position, a position her dead mother put her in. Then, when she’s kidnapped and held for ransom, she realizes how much that scheming had defined her. Perhaps the secrets she holds about her mother shaped her more than she thought.

Aren’t they wonderful little creatures?
They step into a story you’ve so carefully prepared for them and they- well, they tend to mess everything up and create disaster wherever they go, but in theory they’re supposed to create a lasting impression and emotionally-packed story.

But… what happens before the story? What do your characters do and think and act like? Where did their gain their skills, their fears, their dreams?
It’s an important aspect of storytelling; good stories don’t start at the beginning, but a beginning. They start up at a logical point and continue on. Good stories create a sense of continuity with the past. They pick up characters where they’re at and sweep them off on an adventure.
Because of the import of a character’s past (also known as backstory), I’ve concocted a four-part series on Backstory, in which I shall do a great deal of talking, in the hopes that you’ll learn something, I’ll learn something, and we can have at least a bit of discussion. We’ll see.

Backstory, to be concise, is life. 
Because concise is not always specific, let me be specific: backstory is the life your character lived before the “real” story begins. This can include where they were born, where they grew up, what their parents did for a living, your characters dreams and hopes and fears and failures and achievements. Backstory can be complex and lengthy, or it can be simple and short.

The big question I hope to answer today is thus: “Why do we need Backstory?”

A Proposition

The idea of backstory is not so “controversial” (I use this term loosely and void of real conflict) as the idea that worldbuilding is not only important but vital to your story. There are very, very few writers who would claim that backstory is unnecessary.

For those few of you who might be wondering why it is important, this post is for you. I am suggesting what many people already believe, plus a tad more (because if you’re going to argue in favor of one side of an argument, you may as well take a strong stance).
My proposition is thus: all strong characters have a strong backstory. In addition, a story where there is no backstory is a weak story.

And there it is. Simple enough, yes?
Let me divulge a bit more to clarify (again, conciseness is not always specific).

“Strong Backstory” makes “Strong Characters”

A strong backstory is not a detailed one, necessarily. Your character’s backstory can be very simple and summed up in no more than a paragraph or two, yet still be strong. In reverse, you can write a whole novel about a character’s backstory despite its obvious weaknesses and holes.

Strength does not come from length or in number (this is not military strategy). Strength is created by a few simple ideas:


Each backstory in your novel needs to be unique. Unless you story is about a bunch of clones and/or time-traveling doppelgängers, there is no such thing as two people living the exact same life. If all your characters have the same fear, the same social status, and the same childhood, the backstory is weak. In addition, backstory should be unique from those outside your novel.
If a cliché slips into the backstory, it’s not the end of the world. Clichés are cliché because they started out as a powerful storytelling device that became overused. So if your character is an orphan because the villain killed her parents, don’t sweat too much. Yes, it’s horribly clichéd and it immediately makes me think of half-a-dozen other stories. But that does not make the backstory weak. It simply makes it cliché. What you do with the cliché is what makes it weak or strong.
If you use the cliché to make your story powerful, then it’s not weak.

Nothing worthwhile happens in a tale without conflict. It’s not worth reading about if there is no conflict. It becomes like a textbook on herbs and the drying thereof. Not only will it smell like herbs, but it will be just as dry as said herbs.
Conflict takes all shapes and forms (not just violence, thank you) and is a key component in every story. It extends into the future (what sort of conflict is there after the story) and into the past (what sort of conflict is there before the story).
If nothing bad ever happens in the backstory, it’s a boring backstory. This is not to say you must have violence and vileness and darkness dripping through the backstory (that is often a sign of a weak backstory; a topic for another day), but it is to say that your character cannot lead a perfect life before their story begins.

Finally, reality plays an important role in the creation of a backstory. If the backstory is unrealistic, it’s hard to believe. If your character starts out as a poor beggar, yet has a college-level education, things get a bit suspicious. Unless you provide a reason for that education and the level of poverty your character experiences (think Crime and Punishment), the backstory will be weak, because it is unrealistic.

There is no “Story” without “Backstory”

This is the part of this post which may be considered the least “settling”. Few people will dispute the idea that backstory is important. They might, however, protest the vitality I suggest.

If there is no backstory, there is no story.
Sure, you have it all plotted out, and all written down, and all the characters take part, but you’re missing a key component if there is no backstory. A key component summed up in a simple question.


Why does your story happen?
Your wanting it to happen does not suffice in any version of this universe.
A story needs to be a consequence. It must stem from conflicts and emotions embedded deep in the past.
If there is no backstory, there can be no reason for the conflict that drives your story. That is the simplest way to put it. Backstory fuels the conflict, which fuels the story, which fuels emotion, which makes your novel good.

The Diversity of Backstory

I guess I just like that word, don’t I?
It’s a nice word, when used correctly.

Backstory has this tendency to hang out around characters and anywhere else it associates is often ignored. It is not, however, stuck in a tiny little clique I call the “Character Clique”. Backstory is a Roving Robert, so to speak. It skips around from clique to clique without caring much for social stigma.

It extends to all areas of story: character, plot (the conflict clique), and setting (the capstone clique). Everything in your story has to have a backstory.
The magical stones in your fantasy, the scientific evolution in your sci-fi, the relationships in your romance, the angst in your YA coming-of-age story (which I must inform you I do not condone as a genre in general), and the strange happenings of your contemporary psychological horror all require backstory.

As I’ve said, backstory is what happens before the novel begins. We often think of this exclusively as a character trait people have.
But your plot has a backstory. The events in your novel are the culmination (or should be) of months or years or decades of preceding conflict. Plots don’t pop into existence from nothing, much a good meal doesn’t pop into existence from nowhere.
Plots (and good meals) are woven into a masterpiece that has a beginning far before the story begins and an ending that might not even be reached fully by the end of the book (which is a topic for another time).
And setting. Setting is often the backstory of other things. It creates a backdrop from which the plot’s backstory emerges. It provides scenery for your characters as they grow into the people your reader first meet them as. But it needs a backstory, too. Your sci-fi world needs to come from somewhere. Your haunted house in your horror novel needs to come from somewhere.

All good stories have backstory.
But backstory isn’t just a stagnant and static creature hulking the background. It’s active and vibrant. It makes us wonder what around the corner, what our beloved characters are hiding.

Backstory provides a reason for that boy I mentioned earlier to run. It provides a reason for that woman to wish she’d never been put in the position to scheme, yet depend so much on that scheming.

It provides a foundation to build on.
Story needs a foundation.
Shall we explore that foundation further?

What do you think? How important is backstory to YOUR novel? Leave a comment and share!

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  1. The Backstory of my short story (I wouldn't consider it a novel) is indeed extremely important. I could write a whole other story on it, I suppose (perhaps I will, some day). Indeed, it could be said the the story I am writing (though most of it is still in my brain to date) is really the solution to the conflict of the backstory. Hopefully the story will continue to evolve for the better as I think it through and write it down.

    1. Yes, exactly! Backstory is a story unto itself (hence the inclusion of "story" in the word, I think). If there's no story before, why should there be a story now?
      Good luck with your short story!