Give Me 3 Minutes and I’ll Give You a Better (and Darker) Backstory

This week’s video shows you how to approach a dark character backstory fearlessly—and make your story all the better for it.

Video Transcript:

Here’s something sad I’ve noticed about many writers—myself included: we talk a good talk about character backstory, but we don’t always back that up with a good walk. Mostly, what I mean is that we make big promise about the shocking nature of our backstory—and then, come payoff time, fail to deliver in like measure. This is most notable in stories in which the character’s Ghost (the wound in his backstory, which informs some of his basic motivations in the main story) has resulted in major guilt or PTSD .

You know the bit: the character is haunted by some horrible happening in his past. Either he was an awful person and he hates himself for it (cue the antihero music), or something awful was done to him. This is the part of the story where I always get delicious spine tingles, because there ain’t nothing I love better than a dark and convoluted backstory. And yet, we find many stories that, sadly, fail to take advantage of the shocking bigness of the backstory they’ve hinted at.

Gavin Hood’s take on Wolverine’s backstory is a good example. In the canon, his backstory as an awful person is dark indeed. In Hood’s version, he’s a highly relatable, moral man, torn between family loyalty and the right thing. Not that that’s a bad backstory, but it’s not the dark backstory that was promised.

And what does that mean? Two things.

1. It means the character’s journey back to wholeness just isn’t going to pack the same wallop because he doesn’t have as much to recover from as we thought he did.

2. It means the readers’ suspension of disbelief is going to be in danger. When you tell readers something unthinkable happened in the character’s past, you are firing up their imagination. When you fail to deliver, they’re not only disappointed, they’ll start doubting the plausibility of the whole story.

Consider the hints you’ve dropped about your backstory. Are you able to pay them off? If not, it’s either time to stop talking such a big talk—or to dream up an even better backstory.

Tell me your opinion: What hints have you dropped about your character’s backstory so far?

Give Me 3 Minutes and I’ll Give You a Better (and Darker) Backstory

 

 

 

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. robert easterbrook says

    Now this … this is really interesting.

    In The Subjugation the Lledumar don’t have a dark history. Their happy, idyllic life, is thrown into hell by war … and ends as it does with them … uhah, you’ll have to read the book, as they say. But this is the inverse of coming from hell, or tragedy, up into the light – a happy ending. I don’t write stories with happy endings … I write endings meant to make people think, not simply to rejoice that the protagonist overcame ‘evil’.

    I think of Dante … or the Greek tragedy tradition, to which I am indebted … perhaps.

    I don’t start out with a happy, well-adjusted character with a secret past. I start with flawed, human characters and throw them in the pool’s deep end – because I can ;p – and see how they respond and observe how they try to get out of the new alarming, unexpected situation.

    I suppose that doesn’t initially give the reader something to hope for by the end of the story. I mean, I’m not hinting that a character has a secret past or something they’re hiding, and the reader hope’s they’re going to learn what that is by the end of the story. I’m giving them a flawed character, good or bad, living life as best they can, and who just happens to meet disaster, usually not of their making, and out their control. What are they going to do to avert disaster? If they can?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Even just presenting seriously flawed characters is enough to raise good questions about the characters’ backstory. Readers want to know how they ended up that way.

  2. Backstory happens to be something I am not much good at.
    I always get too carried away in my character’s present, I never give that much thought.
    My stories are mostly focused on the now, but I really am considering this powerful tool to add depth in my characters. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Backstory is a powerful opportunity for subtext. But not every story is going to need a ginormous or dark backstory.

    • Anni Davison says

      Hi there! Unsolicited advice from a random stranger here, but backstory is something I’m generally told I’m good at I thought I’d offer up a nugget: I find it helps to think of a characters entire story, beginning to end, in terms of their life. My current work in progress, for instance – my male main, Wolf, has the dark and angsty backstory – he also has a happy childhood, a loving dad, a couple of older siblings living somewhere, and a rich romantic and sexual history. All of them shape the man he becomes, not just the angsty traumatic event. A character is like a structure; you start with the early years as the foundations and build up over time.

  3. Good post, K.M. Weiland, I agree with what you’ve said. That’s one of my problems as well – coming up with these deliciously dark and terrible backstories for my characters, but then being so consumed with getting on with the story that I forget that I need to bring the backstory along as well.

    I also have a question for you. In your newsletter you mentioned you were getting ready to start writing the first draft of a new book – which I’m excited for! – but since I also happen to be in the first draft stage, I was wondering how you get through a first draft. Do you have a certain word count you shoot for per day, or a certain number of scenes or pages? Do you know how many words you average per day of writing a first draft?

  4. Hmm… I struggle with dark back-stories. I have a fear that they are becoming a bit cliche. As if every character has to be a tortured hero… or struggle with PTSD… I’m just unsure how to introduce a black history without coming across as uninventive, or grasping at melodrama.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Not every *needs* a dark backstory. But if you’re going to hint a dark backstory early on, you always have to fulfill that later on in the book.

    • Oh, I’m with you. I struggled with it at first, not sure how much was too much? The more I drafted, the better I got at it.

  5. Katie: Thanks for the inspiration to focus on my backstory. I spent most of the day nurturing this and believe my WIP has a gutsy windup yet to be revealed. Until your video today I’d not given much thought to this part of the novel. Your lively three minutes has made a huge difference to my otherwise thin outline. Muchas gracias.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Backstory is always one of my favorites parts of a book (whether I’m writing or reading it). As authors, we have the ability to do great things with it. Here’s to great things in your book!

  6. I love your website! Its given me some great pointers as I write my first draft. 🙂
    After reading this, I think my backstory itself is dark enough. However, the way I have it written now, the main character has no memory of a traumatic event or anything prior to that event in her backstory, and will not realize what happened until later in the main story. This is intended to cause heightened drama between her and another character, and the loneliness she experiences because of the forgotten event in her past spurs her on in the main story. Is it ok to have a charcter experience amnesia until later in the story? Also, do you have any tips on “dropping hints” about backstory without giving too much away until the right time?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Definitely okay! In fact, amnesia in itself is both a great ghost for the character and a great hook to grab reader curiosity.

      As for dropping hints, that’s very much about balance – which is very much about the specifics of the story and its unique backstory. Usually you’re just going to be dropping half hints: “He tried not to think about the day Lauren died.” Or “if the police found him now, he’d be in very big trouble.”

  7. Good point! Funny that you seem so knowledgeable, since you NEVER write tortured characters with dark and deadly secrets. 😛
    I’ve seen this SOOoo much in fiction. So much so that when I come across another PTSD-laced character angsting about the horrible stuff that happened in his or her past, I have a tendency to cross my arms and give the author the Eyebrow Lift of Skepticalness until they show me the proof in that thar pudding.

  8. I’ve seen it so many times, especially on screen, but in books as well.

    I think the problem is that hinting to the backstory is easier than actually work a backstory that harmoniously entwines with the actual story and that gives more meaning to it. Devising a credible backstory that is meaningful to the actual story means… well… creating a second full story. I think this is why many times authors just try to get away with mere ‘hints’ and don’t really deliver the backstory in the end.

    I don’t think you necessarily need a ‘dark’ backstory. Sure, dark ones are more easily alluring to readers, but I think if a backstory harmoniously mixes with the plotline, it will be satisfying for the reader even if it’s a ‘normal’ backstory, as long as you carefully handle the ‘reveal of the mystery’. In truth I don’t think the darkness of the backstory is the main point. I think the mystery is the point, and that’s why the delivery might be so tricky. You can’t solve a mystery if you don’t have all the clues in your hands.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You’re totally right. I’ve definitely had to go back and tone down backstories in my own books when I realized that the “bigness” of the backstory would simply end up complicating the main story too much. It’s all about balance.

  9. My first novel had a dark backstory, although it was a PTSD related, but I have not attempted to replicate that since. That backstory was not so much intentional as something that grew organically with the protagonist and the plot.

    However, in draft novels that I am working on, I need to check what sort of backstories are emerging. Maybe they are not dark enough, or as JazzFeathers says – the mystery is the point.

    Thought provoking post – thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Organic backstories are always the best ones. We don’t want to include a dark backstory just for shock’s sake. It needs to be an inherent part of the main story.

  10. My problem is that in writing I’m terrible at keeping my secrets secret. My backstories are great, my hinting? Not so much. I’m too blunt. My backstory is MUCH better than I hinted.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      One of the best tricks for taking advantage of backstory is to hint at it only insofar as knowledge of the backstory is necessary at any given point in the story. In other words: don’t share the backstory until you absolutely have to in order to make the story make sense. The hints you drop early on should be curiosity piquers to get your readers asking questions about your character’s backstory.

  11. I have missed your blog so much! Thanks for the post! I agree, backstory must pay off when it had been hinted as something big… or maybe be even bigger than you hinted (I think that is what I´m doing with my lead in my next novel, the fact she does something very cheery and sweet is triggered by something awful that happened to her and her despair to hold on to hope, in a way).

    I will definitely have this in mind!

    M.

  12. I feel like writing protagonist’s backstory is easier than writing antagonist’s backstory, because their already had a dark nature, do you feel the same way about your antagonist? I wonder how to make their backstory darker than the protagonist?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      An antagonist’s backstory doesn’t necessarily *have* to be darker than the protag’s, especially since he’s presumably living the darkest part of his life right now, in his conflict with the protagonist. But it’s always fun and useful to include a powerful Ghost in the antagonist’s past to give him proper motivations for what he’s doing now.

  13. Anni Davison says

    I agree whole-heartedly – I always hated things like this in stories. My first big WIP suffered from it horribly – the MC was a teenage girl who had accidentally let her younger brother die whilst in her care. While it’s a believable and relateable backstory it didn’t warrant the build up that was there. If anything the build up just diminished what should (and could) have been a rich character with a genuinely sad story.

    Similarly my current story in progress has two MC’s both of whom have pretty dark backstories. His isn’t a secret – in fact, the plot is initiated by the partial revelation of it, and it’s fed steadily into the story as the plot progresses. It’s not a case of working out what the mysterious backstory is, just filling in some of the details knowledge-gaps as you go. However, this does serve a few purposes. First, it stops the main message of the story (which is tackled through his backstory) from being lost in a cheap mystery for the sake of plot. Second, it allows me to very quietly add in the FMC’s backstory hints and smack them at the end because very few people are looking at her at all – the focus is very much on him.

    There’s a lot that can be done with a backstory, you’re absolutely right that it doesn’t always need to be “OMG OMG GUESS WHAT?!” for the whole tale to be effective

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sounds like you’ve got a total handle on this. You’re consciously doing everything right!

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