There’s a problem with backstory? Among writers that’s a rhetorical question. We all know there are lots of potential problems with backstory—everything from where to put it in the story to how much of it we should even be sharing with readers in the first place.
But before you can start worrying about any of those problems, you should first be worrying about this one.
You Will Never Have a Problem With Backstory if You Ask This Question
Before you ask where or how much, you first need to ask yourself what? What should your backstory be about?
Backstory can be about many things. At its broadest definition, it is simply the history of your characters’ lives prior to the chronological beginning of your story (kinda like Kermit’s Swamp Years).
Your protagonist had parents, he was born, he did some stuff here there, and most of it was boring–with the exception of one very important event.
This one event is going to be the heart of not just your backstory, but your character’s entire arc.
2 Important Ways the Ghost Transforms Your Story
Focusing on the Ghost does several things for your story.
1. The Ghost Ups the Stakes
If your character’s backstory is all sunshine and roses, that really doesn’t offer much oomph the main story. But if it’s tragic, it has the potential to contribute to inner conflict (via the Lie the Character Believes), drive the character’s motivations, and even introduce personal antagonists into the present-day conflict.
2. The Ghost Brings Focus to the Story
Most authors instinctively understand that “something bad” happening in your character’s past is much more interesting than “something good.” But it’s not enough to just dream any ol’ awful situation. The Ghost you come up with must be pertinent to the main story and your character’s arc within it.
The #1 Potential Problem With Backstory
That leads us right up to that promised Number One Problem With Backstory. This is the Problem of the Backstory That Doesn’t Have a Point.
I don’t often call out books and movies as bad examples, but today I have one that’s so egregiously perfect, I pretty much have to.
Consider the Wachowskis’ blockbuster flop Jupiter Ascending. This story has so many problems it could (and probably will) inspire a slew of posts, but for now, consider the Ghost in protagonist Jupiter Jones’s backstory: her dad’s death and her still-pregnant mother’s illegal immigration to America.
In isolation, this is a great backstory Ghost. The problem? It has absolutely no impact upon the main plot. This is all the more grievous since the Ghost is given a lengthy prologue dramatization that screams This is important!
Except it’s not important. Aside from Jupiter’s attachment to the stories of her father and her related interest in the stars, the story never circles back to explain why the dad’s violent murder at the hands of Russian thugs was significant.
So let’s review. Giving your protagonist a tragic backstory? Good. Having that backstory affect the plot and character arc in important ways? Even better! Consider your work-in-progress and make sure the awesome backstory you’ve dreamed up is serving as more than just window dressing.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is the biggest problem with backstory you struggle with in your writing? Tell me in the comments!