Is Your Novel's Backstory Big Enough?

Is Your Novel’s Backstory Big Enough?

This week’s video encourages writers not to skimp on important (and fun) backstory.

Video Transcript:

With all the superhero movies going around these days, there are a lot of origin stories. And I gotta say: I love that. I love origin stories, not just because they’re a fun glimpse into the beginning stages of a familiar character, but mostly because they’re stories with psychological ramifications. They’re stories about becoming, about making choices. And since we all know where those choices are going to lead, it’s fascinating to see why and how they happen.

Basically, when we talk about an origin story, what we’re really talking about is backstory. And I gotta say this too: I love backstory. It brings depth to a character and his actions in the present. Backstory sometimes gets a little bit of a bad rap, since it can be easy to misuse. Sometimes authors get so wrapped up in their backstory that they get lost in it. The story becomes more about the backstory than the story itself. Readers start drowning in the flashbacks when all they want to do is move forward with the present-day action.

But don’t forget this: backstory is awesome. Don’t get so caught up in not overdoing it that you neglect it. Backstory provides a singular opportunity for deepening character and theme and increasing the suspense. As Hemingway would say, the backstory is the 9/10th of the iceberg under the water. Without those 9/10th, your chunk of ice ain’t going float.

Take a moment to evaluate your backstory. What happened in your character’s past that is influencing his decisions in the main story? What secrets might he be harboring? What ghosts might he be running from? What revelations from his past can you use to totally rock his future? You definitely don’t want to overdo backstory to the point that it interferes with your main story, but don’t ever give it the cold shoulder. Who knows? It could be your character’s origin story breaking records in theaters next summer!

Tell me your opinion: How is your characters backstory influencing the main story?

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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. I love backstory, but only when it’s trickled within the story whether through the character’s internal monologue or within scenes.

    My character’s backstory is a huge influence. Her mother is a serial killer who was put away 20years earlier and on the anniversary of her mother’s capture, a copycat killer emergers. Everything that is going wrong with her and in her life is due to her backstory.

    Because of that, keeping a balance is challenging, but it’s great for my character’s growth.

  2. Oh, wow, killer backstory! No pun intended. 😉 Love it.

  3. Hi KM – What IS an ‘origin’ story?? Is it another word for ‘series’ novels? I’d like to make my current novel a continuing series, but I’m not sure if it falls into the category of ‘origin.’

  4. An origin story is the story of how an established character “began.” For instance, in the superhero genre, the origin story is usually about how the character got his super powers.

  5. Not having backstory was making my characters flat and their dialogue too theme-heavy. I knew it was necessary for a novel, and I thought I could skip it for short story, but I guess it’s always important to know your characters and where they come from.

  6. It’s difficult to understand a character’s motivations without knowing what history informed them.

  7. I love superhero movies because of the origin stories. I think that’s why Batman is my favorite. I’ve finally settled on a story and I’m very excited about developing my characters’ backstories. That’s always been my favorite part of plotting. Even if most of it never makes its way into the story, it’s so important to know what makes your characters tick so they seem to breathe–to you and the reader.

  8. It’s amazing how big a difference it makes to know what’s happened behind the scenes. Makes crafting character motivations so much easier, even if you never have to explain the wherefores in the book itself.

  9. NoahDavid Lein says:

    I love this!

    My draft right now is entirely backstory. It’s so difficult to tell a character’s story when I don’t know him or her yet. Thank you for the reminder that 90% of it will eventually have to go under the water, though. It helps to not take it way too seriously and get bogged down and miss out on the good (later) stuff.

    • Di Hooson says:

      I’ve thoroughly enjoyed researching and writing my backstory to my novel for both the plot and characters. It’s easy to see how you can get so immersed in the origins of the story that you forget the actual story.

  10. Sometimes, however, the backstory turns out to *be* the story. If you find your backstory more interesting or exciting than your main story, you may want to consider allowing the backstory to be your main story instead.

  11. This post appeals to me because I’m working on this stage at the current moment. I’d been reading a lot lately about people downplaying backstory or strongly suggesting to not let it take over the entire work. That’s kinda the way I’d written over the years because I love going in length about origins and such. But in the end, it becomes a problem because it detracts from the whole 😛 and to my discredit, the origin often interests me more than the events happening in the first chapter ot two when I’m setting up the main plot.

  12. It’s always wise for us to follow our interests. If the backstory fascinates us, chances are it’ll fascinate readers too – *if* we present it right, with plenty of mystery and significance.

  13. Backstory/origin is my favorite part, too. I love discovering what makes a favorite character the man or woman they are today. I try to come up with a little backstory for every character who has some kind of an impact on the story, but the main character(s) and his or her opponent get the most attention because it’s their story.

    My current MC has suffered abuse in the past. He also suffers from PTSD. These two things profoundly affect his life. His personality also affects his actions and reactions. He’s normally an outgoing, friendly guy, the life of the party. But there are things that cause him to shut himself off from others or internalize things. Sometimes it can be tricky, but it’s always worth it. 🙂

  14. Yes, great point. Although we don’t want minor characters’ backstories taking over, it is important to remember that every character has a history and a future. In a different book, a minor character could easily have been the hero – so they deserve just as much thought in their creation.

  15. What is tge line between egough, and too much backstory?

    Right now my main story has a character with a positive change arc where he thought up the Lie when his father was killed in front of him and then his father’s killer takes over the kingdom and takes Lance, my character, under his wing, even though the five-year-old boy Lance hates him.
    The story however is about when Lance is twenty-five.
    I show some of the backstory as the prolog (namely his father dueling with the man right before he dies), then I show more of it throughout the rest. Do you think that’s enough?

    • Typo. “The” not “tge”.
      Stupid mobile keypads. 🙁

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “Hello. My name is Lance Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to dare.”

      Sorry. Couldn’t help myself. 😉

      If the backstory motivates the hero’s quest and informs his Lie, then it’s probably going to play a major role. As such, I would suggest *not* telling the backstory until the last possible moment when you have to share it in order for readers to understand what’s going on. Instead, tease it by planting hints of what’s going on without letting readers in on the full story. This is a fabulous way to hook reader curiosity and keep them reading.

  16. To be totally honest I hadn’t seen that! I love The Princess Bride!
    But as for not revealing until later, Lance tells every one he has over to visit. He’s really bad at keeping secerets, even the ones that could possibly cost him his life, so…
    I have other secrets though!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s really all that matters. As long as there’s *something* readers want to discovery badly enough to read on!

  17. K.m., Is this good? Kaia and I are twins. I am first born which makes me first in line as mermaid princess to become queen of the Mera clan. We are special mer-fork, but in light of the yellow death threat, must protect the realms. After Kaia and myself were born, my mother gave birth to Kiana so I have two sisters, my parents are king Morgan Pearl and Queen Pearlyn Pearl of the Mera clan. I also have visions from Ariella, my ancestor. I lived in a cavern that had a palace. So I come a long line of royalty. Leilani says this to Zane,

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As long as you’re waiting to reveal the info at a point where it’s necessary to the plot and readers are curious about it, it’s fine.

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