Backstory: The Importance of What Isn’t Told

Backstory: The Importance of What Isn’t Told

When Ernest Hemingway spoke about the dignity of an iceberg being “due to only one-eighth of it being above water,” he was speaking about the importance of the part of the story that isn’t told. Those seven-eighths underwater are the ballast for the tiny bit that juts up to glisten in the sun. And, more often than not, those seven-eighths are largely composed of one of the most important—and yet sometimes overlooked—facets of any tale. Backstory.

Backstory, of course, is basically self-explanatory. It’s the story that goes in back of the real story. The story before the story. The unseen history that informs all of your characters’ decisions and actions. As such, it’s understandably vital to the progression and consistency of your tale. Particularly during this modern trend of beginning stories in medias res (in the middle of things), a deep and full-bodied backstory is every whit as important as the story itself.

Use Backstory to Transform Your Real Story

When I sit down to write a new story, I generally have a basic idea of the major plot points. I know who my heroes are, I know what they’re after, I know some of things they’re going to have to accomplish to reach their goals. But my concept of who they are and what, in their individual pasts, has shaped them into the people I need them to be, is often foggy at best.

Before I can tell others my story, I have to tell myself its prequel. I begin writing my characters’ backstories with no other intention than that of figuring out where my story proper needs to go. But the exhilarating part of all this is that usually the backstory takes on a life of its own and transforms my previously shallow concept of my story into something much bigger. The little chunk of ice floating around in my imagination morphs into a looming iceberg.

Good Backstory Is All About Motivation Triggers

Within backstory, we find the key motivating factors in our characters’ lives:

  • The inability to measure up to his younger brother, which fuels Peter Wiggin’s anger and ambition (the Ender’s Shadow series by Orson Scott Card)
  • The long-harbored guilt for brutal war crimes, which impels Benjamin Martin to avoid war (the movie The Patriot).
  • The long years of loneliness which influenced John Barratt to accept the compulsory swapping of roles with his French lookalike (The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier).

Enders Shadow Orson Scott Card Patriot Mel Gibson Scapegoat Daphne Du Maurier

In some lucky instances, the backstory takes over completely, as in Milena McGraw’s After Dunkirk and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife.

Time Travelers Wife Audrey Niffenegger After Dunkirk Milena McGraw

How to Create Amazing Backstory

The key to crafting stories with many layers—stories with depth and ballast—is to never ignore the blank spaces in your characters. Don’t let them get away with telling you only what they must to make the story work. Search out the shadows in their pasts, discover their parents, their childhood friends, their catalysts. Don’t just accept that your main character is a cop; find out why he became a cop. Don’t just slap a scar on your heroine; discover where the scar came from.

At the same time, don’t forget that there’s a time and a place where backstory belongs—and a time and place where it doesn’t. Sometimes the only person who needs to know the backstory is the author. Vital as this information may be, don’t inflict it unnecessarily on your readers. The best backstories are those that influence without obstructing. Just like an iceberg, stories work best when the greater part of them remains submerged.

Backstory: The Importance of What Isn’t Told

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Excellent explanation of the concept “back story.”
    You almost make me want to be a fiction writer…more power and adventure to you in creating stories and characters that live in your and your readers’ hearts!
    My hat’s off to you!
    Love,
    Jlo

  2. Fiction is an incredible journey; I’m convinced there’s nothing like it. Never too late to jump in!

  3. Great post! The backstory is usually what makes my characters come alive to me–to see where they’ve been, what they’ve gone through, how they’ve dealt with it–it all seems to impact how they deal with the conundrums I place them in. 🙂 In one story I’m editing, the backstory is key to moving forward in the story. In another, not so much so, but it’s still helpful.

  4. Backstory is one of my favorite parts of plotting. I love figuring out what it is that makes my characters tick, and backstory is almost always a huge part of that.

  5. I am only just beginning to understand the importance of a full bodied back story. Great post. thanks for the info 🙂

  6. This is a great post! All you ever hear is negative stuff about back story. You’ve managed to point out the importance of it. Thank you!

  7. @Tabitha: Backstory is often one of those things that just happens – we instinctively slap in a few details whenever they appear necessary. But taking the time to nurture backstory can pay huge dividends.

    @Lazy Writer: For me, backstory is one of the most rewarding parts of telling the story, both personally and, ultimately, in the quality of the story as well.

  8. This is an exceptional post. You explain the importance of backstory quite well. Thank you!

  9. So very glad you got something out of it!

  10. As always, you explain to where I can understand. I do tend to daydream my characters’ lives as I write about them instead of preplanning–which means their histories aren’t as well developed as yours. I’m gonna try it your way some day!

  11. Nothing wrong with planning in reverse, if that’s what works best for you. As you’ve heard me say before, I think we view our respective outlines and first drafts much the same way – which gives us both plenty of mental wiggle room.

  12. Hmm. It sounds like I don’t think enough about backstory. I’ll try and remember this.

  13. I think, once you start focusing on it, you’ll discover it’s one of the best parts of the process!

  14. Great post! I love developing back story; more for myself than for my readers. It’s helps the characters and settings seem more real for me, and thus, easier to write about.

  15. I agree. Backstory helps take characters from 2-D to 3-D.

  16. Back stories can be powerful enough to sink the titanic (another iceberg metaphor!)

  17. Back stories can be powerful enough to sink the titanic (another iceberg metaphor!)

  18. This comment has been removed by the author.

  19. Iceberg’s crop up surprisingly often around here! 😉

  20. Anonymous says:

    I think it’s intriguing for the reader to not know everything from the character’s past – it gives them something to think and try to figure out on their own.

  21. That depends. If the author is dangling a carrot about the character’s past, he’d better be sure to deliver the goods in the end!

  22. One of my favorite authors had a trick about developing backstory for his upcoming novels by writing smaller fragments first not intended for publication, whose only purpose was to help him get the feel for a setting or a character. He literally invented history for himself as an author to look back to when writing the real story later. It would be like writing The Hobbit to set the stage and develop backstory for the larger Lord of the Rings storyline.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_zelazny

    Zelazny also tended to write a short fragment, not intended for publication, as a kind of backstory for a major character, as a way of giving that character a life independent of the particular novel being worked on. At least one “fragment” was published, the short story Dismal Light, originally a backstory for Isle of the Dead’s Francis Sandow. Sandow himself figures little in Dismal Light, the main character being his son, who is delaying his escape from an unstable star system in order to force his distant father to come in and ask him personally. While Isle of the Dead has Sandow living a life of irresponsible luxury as an escape from his personal demons, “Dismal Light” anchors his character as one who will face up to his responsibilities, however reluctantly.

    I’ve done this before for a novella I was trying to develop when I was struggling to get a handle on the setting and main characters. I knew I needed to have two characters in conflict but didn’t know enough about them. One of the characters was an assassin-priest, a Dire Knight. I wrote a short story about him called The Mark of the Vulture. It fleshed out how one could be both an assassin and a member of a religious order. One of the characters who cropped up to oppose him in that story was a holy warrior, a Knight Templar. To find out more about that character, I wrote a story called The Hand of the Dove. By the time I’d finished those two short stories, I’d developed everything I needed to write the longer piece I’d intended to write all along, The Night of the Jester. I finished the backstory short stories and the ultimate novelette, totaling 20k words altogether, in the span of one three day weekend.

    Granted, I don’t always go to such expense of time and effort to develop rich backstory, but in this case, and others, it has proven to be the faster and more efficient way to accomplish the final result. Plus, I now have some bonus unpublished stories should any of these other properties take off, which might be fun for somebody some day.

  23. GREAT technique. I’ve often been tempted to try it, but like you have opted out due to time – and the fact that once I started in on these fascinating backstories, I might never get to the story itself! One of the reasons I’m so excited about my WIP is that it’s giving me the opportunity to explore much of the backstory as *part* of the main story.

  24. Great post! The backstory is usually what makes my characters come alive to me–to see where they’ve been, what they’ve gone through, how they’ve dealt with it–it all seems to impact how they deal with the conundrums I place them in.


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  25. Yep, me too. My characters’ backstories are inevitably linked closely to their trials in the story itself.

  26. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for reminding me! I have good backstories for two of my characters, but an early remark of yours reminded me that I did indeed slap a scar on my herione and I still havent decided how she got it. She’s the one that’s giving me the most trouble trying to pin down. But as I work on her I use the background she does have to discover and build up who she is. Wish me luck.
    Nadine Liamson

  27. In the imagining stage of creating a story (long before I get to the nitty-gritty of writing them down), it’s a character’s backstory that inevitably brings the character to life for me. Once I start realizing where this person came from, I start figuring out where he’s going to go.

  28. Anonymous says:

    Sorry to nitpick, but did Barratt “except” or “accept” the swapping of roles?

  29. Right you are! Thanks for catching that.

  30. Another helpful advice. For me, putting the backstory in its right place is almost always done in the 1st edit. For some reason, I know what the backstory is, but I don’t know how to write it properly in the first draft.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s always tempting to reveal the backstory too soon. But sometimes we just need to get it out of our systems in the first draft, so we know what needs to be said and what doesn’t.

  31. thomas h cullen says:

    Croyan never had a backstory..

  32. Nikolaus Dubinin says:

    Such a straightforward light! Thank you for this article.

    Backstory, I adore. It is the shape of the arrow, just before it is fired. It is such an important anchor for character role. It explains and defines, motivates. The best backstory, in one humble opinion, is that which seems like something almost whimsical, (with the dash of a stolen starlight memory; or threnody of moonlight tragedy), when we are meeting the character. Yet, the reader is left to sum two and two, to complete the spell’s conjuring, as the journey takes shape and forward proceeds.

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