The #1 Key To Relatable Characters: Backstory

The #1 Key to Relatable Characters: Backstory

The #1 Key To Relatable Characters: BackstoryPart 10 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel

Ever stop to think about why you enjoy backstory?

I receive lots of questions from writers about backstory, most of it along the lines of: I love my backstory soooo much. How can I cram as much as possible of it into the main story?

I hear you. Because I love my backstory too. There’s one simple reason why we all love it so much.

Backstory is the key to discovering our characters.

Backstory is Ernest Hemingway’s 9/10ths of the iceberg under the water. It’s the delicious subtext. It’s what gives depth and breadth to a character—even (and here’s the magic part) when the backstory itself is barely touched upon in the main story.

Whenever I write a character who just isn’t working out for me, the problem is inevitably that I don’t have a grasp on his backstory. If you don’t know where a character came from, then you don’t yet really know who that character is.

That’s why writers love backstory. Turns out, that’s why readers love it too.

How a Romp Like Guardians of the Galaxy Effortlessly Created Relatable Characters

This brings us to Part 10 of our ongoing exploration of why so many of us are loving the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Guardians of the Galaxy officially kicked off the series’ Cosmic storyline with a rompy space opera that, at first glance, seemed doomed to fail. I remember seeing the original concept art for the movie way back and thinking:

A raccoon.

A. Raccoon.

A Rac.Coon.


Guardians of the Galaxy Concept Art

The Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Marvel Studios.

I wasn’t the only one. Based on a littler known Marvel storyline, starring what was then a largely non-A-list cast, and being deliberately funky in about every way known to late-summer movies, it seemed like Marvel was really stretching on this one.

At this point, retrospect tells us Marvel’s dark horse turned out to be a massive winner for almost all of those same reasons, and more:

  • It’s a good old-fashioned space opera, in the best tradition.
Guardians of the Galaxy Ship

The Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Marvel Studios.

Rocket Racoon Laughing Guardians of the Galaxy

The Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Marvel Studios.

  • The upbeat and highly nostalgic ’80s soundtrack could practically have carried the film in its own right.
Dancing Baby Groot Guardians of the Galaxy

The Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Marvel Studios.

  • It finally and fully tied much-foreshadowed über-villain Thanos into the storyline.
Guardians of the Galaxy Thanos

The Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Marvel Studios.

Guardians of the Galaxy Hero Walk

The Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Marvel Studios.

If you think that’s easy, think again. For most of us, presenting one charming main character is hard enough.

How did Guardians manage this impressive trick?

Easy! It brought all its main characters to life, in a minimum of time, by grounding each and every one of them and their motivations in a pertinent backstory.

What’s the Ghost in Your Character’s Backstory?

It’s not enough to just give your character a history. The fact that she worked as a checkout clerk at Safeway when she was in high school is not going to secure your readers’ undying love and loyalty.

Nope, what your character needs is a Ghost. This is the wound in his backstory. It’s something that haunts him. (Because ghosts haunt people, get it?) It’s something so big and painful that it shaped him into the person he is today.

Consider the Guardians’ Ghosts:

  • Peter Quill / Starlord

As the protagonist, Quill’s backstory is given the most screen time. In a lengthy early segment, he is a young boy, waiting at the hospital for his mother to die of cancer. Something this traumatic is usually more than enough to create a powerful Ghost. But that’s just the the start for poor Peter. As he runs out of the hospital after his mother dies, he’s kidnapped by aliens—never to return to Earth (so far).

Guardians of the Galaxy Peter Quill Little Boy Abducted

The Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Marvel Studios.

  • Gamora

The adopted daughter of Thanos starts out as a seeming antagonist, a woman entirely with it—especially in comparison to Quill’s often-clueless bravado. But when she betrays Thanos and joins forces with Quill, her actions make absolute sense in light of the Ghost in her past: Thanos killed her family before “adopting” her and turning her into his private assassin.

Gamora Guardians of the Galaxy

The Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Marvel Studios.

  • Rocket Raccoon

Did I express disgruntlement about the presence of a talking raccoon in a Marvel movie? Obviously, that was before I met the wise-cracking, emotionally twisted, touchy little furball. Once you get over the fact that he is indeed a talking raccoon, he becomes arguably the most compelling and interesting character in the story. Part of that is his delightfully smart mouth and part of it is his strange bond with the gentle Groot. But no small part of it is his backstory Ghost: as a lab experiment, ruthlessly tortured into his unique sentient existence (“Ain’t no thing like me ‘cept me”).

Guardians of the Galaxy Rocket Raccoon Aint no thing like me cept me

The Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Marvel Studios.

  • Drax the Destroyer

The literal-minded alien collosus Drax is arguably the least developed of the main characters. But he works for two primary reasons. 1) He’s funny in unexpected ways (“Nothing goes over my head!”). 2) He has a serious Ghost motivating all his actions in the movie: his wife and children were massacred.

Drax and Rocket Guardians of the Galaxy

The Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Marvel Studios.


  • Groot

Groot is special. Groot does not have a motive, a Ghost, or a backstory—as far as we know. But something obviously happened to him to make him the way he is.

I am Groot Guardians of the Galaxy

The Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Marvel Studios.

3 Ways a Backstory Ghost Brings Your Characters to Life

A well-chosen Ghost brings several important dimensions to any character:

1. Motivation

Characters never act in vacuum. There must always be a reason why they choose to pursue their story goals and use the methods they do. The Ghost is always the most important cause in your character’s backstory; as such, the main story, in many ways (and sometimes in its entirety) is the effect of the Ghost.

How Guardians Gets This Right:

As you can see from the above list, almost all the main characters are directly motivated in their story goals by their backstory Ghosts. Gamora and Drax are out to subvert Thanos because of his past treatment of them. Quill and Rocket are both compensating for their past pain in pursuing mercenary gains at first, and then realizing the family dynamic they’re creating amongst themselves is what they really need in order to be complete.

Groot's Lights Guardians of the Galaxy

The Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Marvel Studios.

How You Can Use Your Character’s Ghost to Create Motivation:

First ask yourself: What does your character want in this story? What is his main goal?

Now ask yourself: Why does he want it? Sometimes the Ghost will be the direct answer (as it is for Drax). Other times, the Ghost will be the source of a deeper personal inadequacy, fueling the Lie the Character Believes, which, in turn, prompts him to pursue the story goal in an attempt to salve this personal wound (as Quill does).

2. Mystery and Subtext

This is possibly my favorite aspect of the backstory Ghost. When you dream up a vast and interesting backstory for your character, you have the opportunity to create both a mystery that piques readers’ curiosity and a sense of subtext and meaning underlying even your character’s simplest actions.

How Guardians Gets This Right:

Quill’s backstory is largely spelled out right from the start. But there are gaps: Who is his “angelic” father? And even without the gaps, his Earth childhood and his musical bond with his mother grounds his character throughout the story, provides context for his actions (saving Gamora), and foreshadows his climactic decisions (dance off!).

Guardians of the Galaxy Dance Off

The Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Marvel Studios.

The other characters’ backstories remain more subtextual, allowing readers to understand enough about their motivations, while still leaving plenty up to readers’ imaginations and curiosity.

How You Can Use Your Character’s Ghost to Create Mystery and Subtext

When I get questions like the one in the first paragraph, in which writers want to know how they can cram as much of their backstory as possible into the main story, my chief bit of advice is always: wait.

As much as you want to share all this good stuff, you will almost always create a more powerful backstory by not sharing all of it upfront.

Tell readers only what they need to know when they need to know it, but sow clues and hints along the way. Make your readers crazy to know the truth about your character’s past and they’ll keep reading for that reason alone.

3. Empathy and Understanding

When you share the things your character has suffered, you immediately give readers an opportunity to relate to this characters’ pain via their own pain. As Rocket says, “We all got dead people.”

This also gives you a vast opportunity to get readers to understand your character, his motivation, and his reasons for choosing to act in sometimes less than admirable ways. A dark backstory Ghost won’t excuse a character’s bad behavior, but it will help readers hold off on judging him too harshly.

How Guardians Gets This Right:

With the arguable exception of Groot, every single character in this story is either an outright scumbag or has made at least a few questionable choices. The trailer shows them in a mugshot lineup at a maximum security prison, while a guard rattles off their many crimes. This is not the Good Citizen Brigade, and few of us would trust these people to sit at the breakfast table with our children.

Guardians of the Galaxy Prison LIneup

The Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Marvel Studios.

And yet… we still love them. We don’t judge them for their past (and sometimes current) sins. We accept them largely because their backstory Ghosts have allowed us to understand why they are the way they are and why they have chosen to act as they do. For the very small amount of time the movie spends on backstory, this is a huge reward to be reaped in return.

How You Can Use Your Character’s Ghost to Evoke Empathy and Understanding:

Think I’m going to tell you to come up with the most pathetic sob story you can think of? Nope. In fact, pouring on the melodrama can have exactly the opposite effect.

The key to creating a backstory Ghost that will resonate with readers and invest them in your characters is simple:

Make sure the ghost directly relates to:

a) the main plot

b) the character’s goal

c) the character’s motivation

d) all of the above.

For example, Gamora’s ghost would have been far less effective had she become an orphan simply because her parents happened to die of E. coli. But because her Ghost is the direct cause of her having acted as an assassin for Thanos all those years, we forgive her unforgivable actions without a second thought.

Backstory is indeed one of the most vastly powerful tools in an author’s array. But don’t wield it like a random shotgun. Focus on the Ghost and the ways in which it can directly power and enhance your main story—and you’ll end up with a backstory your readers will love as much as you do.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about why The Avengers: Age of Ultron‘s plot twists were disrespectful to its viewers.

Previous Posts in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What’s the Ghost in your character’s backstory? Tell me in the comments!

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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.


  1. Love this! Another great post!

  2. KM, you have reached a new level in this Backstory lesson. The graphics are wonderful, animated, very cool.
    Envied your trip to Alaska a little … are you going back????
    Thanks for your solid, well-packaged advice!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks, Mary! No immediate plans to return to Alaska (too many other places to see!), but I definitely enjoyed my time there.

  3. Gosh darn it, now I’m going to have to go watch Guardians tonight! 😉

  4. HonestScribe says

    Another helpful post, as always.

    I know for me, weaving in backstory without info-dumping is something I’ve always had trouble with. However, I read this analogy somewhere, and I know it’s helped me quite a bit. Meeting a character is like meeting someone in real life; you don’t necessarily want to know his/her whole life-story upon the first meeting. In fact, that would be boring, partially because there would be little to nothing left to learn. However, as you get to know this new person, they will share bits and pieces of their life and past with you, giving a fuller person of themselves as time goes on. Granted, getting to know fictional people happens at a faster pace than real life, but I think the relationship analogy works pretty well. Of course, it’s still hard not to want to spill all this character’s fascinating history across the page.

    That’s my current dilemma. I am thinking about starting a story, but all my characters have such fascinating ghosts and backstories that I don’t know where to begin; there’s the general with regrets about his actions during war, the dictator who grieves the death of his wife, the diplomat who survived a genocide…And those are just the secondary characters. It’s a pretty complicated beast. I’m almost tempted to start writing the backstory as the main story, and making it a series from there.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good analogy. Another one I like is thinking of the backstory as a mystery. We tantalize readers with hints throughout the story, sharing it bit by bit, as it becomes important to the main plot, until finally readers are dying to hear the whole of it.

  5. Well this was worth the wait. 🙂 Thanks for pointing out that the main character’s backstory is the one we see most directly (since he’s the character who relates most closely to the audience.) I think that’s something that might help me as far as organizing backstory so it doesn’t take over -do more hinting when it comes to the MC’s friend and associates since he or she may be discovering their backstories along with the audience.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yeah, sorry about the wait. 😉 And, yes, it’s worth noting that we need to be careful not forget our minor characters’ backstories. They can get lost in the focus on the MC, but those little backstories, however little fleshed out, can move mountains in creating subtext.

  6. First, welcome back. Did you get to see any northern lights in Alaska? It’s on my list of places to visit just for that reason.

    Second, this is great advice and I can confirm that it works. My beta readers liked one character’s tragic backstory Ghost so much they had me flesh it out a bit more. Her ghost is the massacre of her family and their caravan six years before the story begins. My readers convinced me to flesh out the aftermath, which was great because it allows me to amplify the mystery that connects her story to the overall plot.

    But on the other hand, I now need to write another flashback scene to complete the plot thread that resulted from fleshing out her backstory.

    I’ve spent days pondering how to approach the still-unwritten flashback, including where to place it and how to handle it in the context of the character’s personal arc. It’s the last major dragon I needed to slay in my revision.

    Now the lightbulb is on, because I realize I can use the final flashback to amplify her imminent confrontation with the Lie that kept her from integrating into the life she’s rebuilt for herself. This post came right on time; it’s the vorpal sword I need right now.

    You have definitely sold me on looking for “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Once again, welcome back!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      No Northern Lights. *sniff*

      The single most important thing to realize about flashbacks is that they *must* move the plot, just as does any other scene. The difference, of course, is that it’s the memory or revelation of new information that moves the plot in the case of a flashback.

  7. As I was reading through, my MC’s motivation (due to backstory) came into focus as well as clearly seeing his character’s change arc. Also that of another character, though will have to flesh out her backstory to fill in the motivation.

    Like your article on starting with the antagonist, this was a huge help for me (and I assume backstory works just as well for the major/minor antagonists as for the protags for the same reasons)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s great! Love those revelations. And, yes, backstory is key in fleshing out any character, no matter how small the role.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Actually, Guardians is a good example of antagonist backstory as well. Ronan the Accuser has a hefty backstory motivation of his own.

      • Really love the revelations too, having the pieces finally start falling into place. Found Maddie’s post and your reply helpful as well as I’d been thinking more on the topic and how it played into character arcs/the lie the character believes.

        Also agree with Liberty, will have to watch it now. Oh… and no Story Structure Database entry??

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Guardians and Ant-Man are the only Marvel movies I haven’t gotten around to doing Story Structure Database entries for yet. But not to worry! I’ll definitely have them up sooner or later.

          • or later??? that just has to be a typo… 😉

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            We’ll hope. 😉 I don’t own either of them, so I’ll have to rent them again one of these days.

          • Antman is in the database. Guardians, however, is not.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Oh, that’s right, I forgot I did Ant-Man when I saw it in theaters. Only one to go then!

          • lol… whenever you get a chance would be great. 🙂

            I think I was curious to see if/how the structure/beats changed with 5 MCs. Do they simply affect parts/all of the ensemble instead?

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            @Greg: Guardians is decidedly an ensemble story, in which all five characters follow the same journey. I can’t remember any instance where any one o them deviates from the main structure. (They might be able to do so in a book, but within the tight confines of a movie, giving multiple characters multiple beats would get really messy really fast.) Also, Quill is decidedly the protagonist, so it’s still his story, even though the others are with him throughout.

          • Thank you, Katie. That really helped clear things up! It also reminded me of an article you wrote sometime back where you made the distinction between protag and MC. Thanks to your search engine I was able to find it.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Glad it was useful! Here’s that post for anyone else who is interesting: Protagonist and Main Character— Same Person? The Answer May Transform Your Story!.

  8. Wonderful post!

    Lately, I’ve been struggling with bringing the internal arc and the external arc together so that one influences the other. People talk about it a lot with writing, but…how? Is the Ghost the answer, the thing that connects the internal growth to the external events?

    Just so I have clarity:

    The damaging belief the character has (Lie), influenced by the haunting backstory event (Ghost) prevents the character from moving forward from damaging belief to character growth (Truth) and getting what the character wants.

    What I’m struggling most with is with scenes, How do you show the character moving from Lie to Truth? I know each book is different, but does the Ghost play a significant part in the character’s lack of growth? That’s what I’m getting.

    So, on a basic level, in order to have character growth, does the character basically have to get over or manage the pain of the Ghost in order to abandon the Lie and reach the Truth?

    Just trying to understand all of this.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Think of the Ghost as motivation. It is what prompts the Lie the Character Believes, which then prompts his pursuit of the Thing He Wants, which creates a very specific overall story goal. The story goal is then the genesis of the plot conflict, as it is what is then met by obstacles in the character’s way–creating the plot.

    • Maybe have the character ACT a certain ‘Truth’ thoughtlessly? And then eventually have them notice that what they’re doing is true? And then have that moment of realized introspection be done sort of climax?
      Hope that helps in any way.

  9. This post comes at the right time, just when I was going through Weiland withdrawal. Whew, crisis averted.

    I have a question for you: Do you know anyone else who can stick three words in a row starting with ‘W’? I don’t. Please help.

  10. In my book, Operation Mermaid: The Project Kraken Incident, one of my characters, Dina Karama, has a backstory involving her mother. Her mother had worked on Project Kraken when Dina was younger. I won’t say too much more than that, to avoid plot spoilers. The backstory directly impacts the main story. Dina’s mother is a character in my book, who gets introduced later on. That becomes an additional thing for her to deal with in the midst of everything. I agree, though, you don’t want to dump too much backstory at once. Also, if you get too melodramatic, the reader thinks you’re laying it on a bit thick. Another example of backstory is the original Star Wars trilogy. (Star Wars and Marvel are both Disney properties now, so this is appropriate.) Luke’s backstory is shrouded in mystery during the first movie. We know that he is a whiner, and that he is strong with the Force. We meet Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, who guides Luke in the ways of the Force. (Interesting this is, hmm?)We don’t learn that Darth Vader is his father until the end of The Empire Strikes Back. That results in the final conflict in Return of the Jedi. (Episodes 1-3 were trying too hard to be backstory for the original trilogy. That, and Jar Jar Binks, is why they failed.) I tried to do something like that with my novel, only I tried to make it one novel, instead of stretching it out.

    • Just wanting replies.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Actually, Star Wars is a great example of well-paced backstory. Think how non-impactful the revelation of Luke’s parentage would have been had Obi-Wan told him upfront Darth was his dad.

    • Another example of backstory in Star Wars is the text that scrolls up at the beginning of the movie. George Lucas got that from the Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers serials from the 30s. Something like that could work, but you just can’t overdo it.

  11. I think Groot does have a backstory similar to Drax’s. His entire people were killed, and Groot is actually King of the Groots.

  12. Kate Flournoy says

    It’s great to have you back, Katie. I will confess, I’ve gotten out of the habit of refreshing your page. 😉

    And this is another great post. Just one more proof that a lot of story problems are forgivable if you have strong characters to carry the reader through.

  13. Another great post. Bringing out the backstory in drips and drabs to pique the interest of the reader is especially noteworthy.

  14. I do hope y0u had a wonderful time in Alaska. I bet it was amazing. Sorry you didn’t get to see the Northern Lights. (I never have either- but I’ve never been that far north.) Did you see any bears? (And would that be a good or bad thing? Probably it would depend on how close they/it were/was.) In any case, I’m glad you’re back. (I’ve been enjoying your blog enormously, though I am rather new to it. I came here through a link from Janice Hardy’s blog.)

  15. Jeffrey Barlow says

    What’s your opinion on writing other stories and short stories about characters’ backstories? (To perhaps be published separately and be standalone or in series, what have you)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      As a personal exercise for the writer, I think it can definitely be a valuable way to explore a character’s past (although you have to be careful not to get so carried away that the backstory becomes more interesting to you than the main story!). As for publishing them separately: also a good approach, as long as the revealed backstory isn’t going to end up sapping too much subtext from your main story by explaining away too much of the mystery.

  16. You’re totally right about giving characters backstory. When we don’t know enough about our characters, they end up flat, generic, or boring, and the reader couldn’t care less about them. One thing to look out for, though, is to not give too much backstory too early, or you risk losing the reader in the backstory. Thanks for another great post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      For me, there is one notable failed character in a past book that always stands out as a blazing example of why I need to know my characters’ backstories. I didn’t know this particular character’s backstory, and as a result the entire book floundered. I see that now in hindsight.

  17. Nana Kwarteng says

    I have some cracking backstories, yay! Both my MCs in my WIP have such disturbing Ghosts that the mischievous ghouls practically drive the story along. Exciting times, indeed. 🙂 Hope you had fun, K?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Cracking backstories”–I like that! And, yes, the best Ghosts are so powerful, they can sometimes create the main story all to themselves.

  18. In my opinion, the idea of a talking racoon is just plain strange. And, since there IS a high possibility that Thanos will be in Infinity Wars and after the last two infinity stones since he doesn’t have ALL of them, that would mean that Vision and Quill are in deep dodo since I think Quill has the pink one, since I know one of the stones is on Vision’s forehead.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The talking raccoon *is* strange, but once you get past it, he’s a great character.

      • It’s hard to translate some comic book images to movies, especially when it’s a totally new [to most] comic story. I think Marvel has done a pretty good job, especially compared to DC.

        Marvel does a good job of taking crazy stuff and finding a way to make it palatable to new audiences, while DC seems to think people will like it just because people like the comics.

        Supergirl aside, most of the DC stuff on tv is pretty shaky. We’ll see if Wonder Woman can save the movies.

  19. Sondra Morton says

    This is really great information.
    Since I just recently joined the site, I am heading back to the beginning of the series to get caught up.
    Thanks for the info!!!

    ….. Says The New Writer!!

  20. Glad it sounds like you had a great time and happy to have you back KM! ?
    Great post as always. My character’s backstory is somewhat two-fold… She has amnesia from the situation that happened to cause her Ghost, but the results of that situation are so traumatic (and she so young at the time), she was told a lie about what actually happened, which is where her Lie comes from that initially advances the plot.
    Later, at plot point 3, she learns the truth of her own dark backstory, resulting in her darkest point in the story, but it forces her to make a choice to ultimately believe the Lie or the Truth (which will complete her character arc).
    Am I thinking about that last part in the right way (in terms of the overall Lie/Truth/Character arc)?

  21. Brian S Gardner says

    This was a great post. Once again, you have given us the tools to fine tune the aspects of our story that are brimming with potential. Thank you!

  22. Sometimes the problem with series books is that book 1 is 90% backstory, setting up for future books. I also notice this on TV, where the first episode is explaining everything for the series. I try to find a way around that, and have an actual plot in my book, even if it’s book 1.

  23. Miss K., For some reason I am always reading your posts around the wee hours of 3’0clock. I read a few years ago that backstory was a tool only used by amateurs. I used it anyway. I loved that movie, Guardians of the Universe and it is a perfect example of how the Ghosts in our character’s pasts create more realistic characters. We all have our own Ghosts which motivate and drive us to decide how to live our lives. So if we write about characters who have backstorys which propell them toward a certain path, then they become more relatable and human to our readers. I would love to read your private and personal backstory, you’re simply a magical being!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I bet the advice you read about backstory being a tool of beginners had more to do with dumping the backstory upfront than with backstory itself. Backstory is certainly *not* a tool of beginners. In fact, its artful use is an advanced skill.

  24. In the aftermath of a battle in my WIP, the MC revealed something in a shrugged-off comment, but I couldn’t let it rest. I had to know more, so I let him tell his crewmates a little about that backstory. Still, not enough for me. I had to write the event, ending with a 30,000-word novella, several new characters that will show up later, and a much better understanding of what makes the MC tick. It was totally worth exploring the backstory.

    One thing I find is that the backstories I create for characters reaches critical mass when they start talking back to me and driving the story in ways I never imagined.

    Our first published book, Dreaming of Xeres, has hints or throwaway lines that begged for expansion. Thus, there are over a dozen short stories in the same world as Dreaming on our website. Writing each one was fun and added to our understanding of the character.

    Loved the backstory post! I’m new here, so I have to look up all the past ones, as well as rewatch Guardians.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Something I’m going to talk about in a post about subtext on Monday is that wherever we find something about our character that makes us ask a question, there we find the opportunity for deep and fascinating subtext. At the end of the day, 90% of backstory *is* subtext. It’s the juicy stuff that makes us wonder.

      • Any chance you might return to making videos again at some point? ?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Never say never, but my schedule is so nuts right now that I had to triage the videos. But I’m still posting basically the same (or more actually) info here on the blog in the Friday text posts.

  25. Seems I’m a week late on this post, but it is spot on what I’m doing at the moment.

    I started my rewrite because as I approached an important argument between my MC and his father, I realized that Dad had no voice to that point. There would be little context.

    What started as a teen romance has grown to larger aspects of growing up emotionally, and a bit late in age. The MC’s Ghost is his relationship with his father, who has always pushed his son to put forth more effort in using his great skills. This is what happened with my own father, and the way he handled it left a lot of anxieties and scars.

    Now I’m exploring Dad’s backstory and his Ghost, in how he related to his father, and with K.M.’s guidance I’m able to use subtext to show when things get uncomfortable. In these last few paragraphs that I’ve written, Grandpa is in the hospital.


    Mom sat beside Grandma and took her hand. “How has he been lately?”

    “He was putting on some weight and been more tired lately, but nothing too bad, considering his age – and maybe that’s the problem.”

    I leaned forward to see Grandma and asked, “What do you mean?”

    “You know how hard it is to get him to go to the doctor’s when he’s feeling good? Not enough time, too much money, and they’re just trying to pump him full of pills.”

    Dad grunted, “Hmph – stubborn.”

    Grandma tilted her head and frowned. “Jerry’s taken over the heavy lifting, but you try getting Cal off that tractor. He’s out there every day, and then he’s always wanting to drive the truck down to the Snyder’s plant himself.” Then she leaned in to see me and wagged her finger. “You better not be eating any Utz chips!”

    “You don’t have to worry about me, Grandma.”


    Later Grandma scolds Dad for seeming to resent growing up on a farm. He holds off his
    reaction until they get to the motel, then spills out to Mom how his father has been doing the same thing every day since the age of 12 (60 years). Dad wanted to do better, but did he peak at 22? He’s been teaching the same lessons year in and year out. He’s afraid that in another 20 years he’ll still be stuck in that same spot. And then you die.

    Personally, what I am proud of is that even now in my 50’s I am still constantly learning and growing. Knowing where my story is going, I can have all this point to that coming event where Dad blows up over his disappointment with his son.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nice. It’s always great to explore antagonist’s backstories. Puts them and their motivations in an entirely different light.

  26. How do you know what stuff from your backstory is important to write about in your story and what doesn’t need to be relayed?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Always ask yourself if the information is necessary to a) advance the plot in the main story or b) help readers understand what’s happening or what a character’s motivation is.

  27. Thank you for this! It got me thinking about my MC’s Ghost, which I hadn’t really nailed down even though I knew his back story in pretty good detail. Turns out it was there all along, I just hadn’t realized it and so hadn’t looked at it under the microscope like I needed to. Things are flowing much better now. 🙂
    Also, this post made me realize something: Flat Arc characters can have Ghosts that fuel their Truth just like the Change and Fall Arc-ers have Ghosts that fuel their Lies.
    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe Drax and Thanos’-adopted-daughter-gone-rogue (oops, forgot her name!) are both Flat Arc characters and good examples of this. It’s been a while since I watched the movie, so I could be wrong. Another example (that I believe you have pointed out before) is Thor in his second movie, the first movie being his Backstory and Ghost.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’d have to rewatch the film to be sure about Drax’s and Gamora’s arcs. Gamora definitely strikes me as a Flat Arc, but Drax seems a little too… unbalanced. :p However, you’re absolutely correct that Ghosts can and do influence Flat Arcs. The difference is that, in a Flat Arc, the character has already come to peace with her Ghost (even if it still hurts). Rather than fueling her Lie as it would in a Change Arc, it is instead the reason she found the Truth before the story ever started.

  28. If your character’s backstory is really cool, maybe you’re writng the wronf book! Would that backstory make a book or short story on its own?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Certainly. If the backstory is the more interesting of the two, write it instead!

  29. Have you seen Guardians of the Galaxy 2? What did you think?

  30. Worked on the backstory some more.

    Her Ghost is when in the past her and the antagonist were in live and had a child, but the child died and he blames her, along with him being resentful+angery about the Elder adapts breaking the treaty by having her and him to bring the book back from the city early. (The humans and Elven share the responsibility of watching book.)

    Hows that?

    The Lie is still triping me up. *sigh* Oh well, at least your articles have showen me I need to give more backstory and how everyone feels about what is going on. I’ve download a character Planer app (should be named story planner) and its basically like an outline app with tabs.

    It’s going to be a lot of work but I know this story can be backwards outlined (just this once) and can be fixed. Thank you for making such detaled articles.

  31. Frank Kozarich says

    I am loving this series of yours. You provide great insights that are helping me.

    I have a question.

    In a short story can a backstory be implied instead of explicitly detailed? In a couple of my short stories my characters mention in dialog something that should be construed as their ghost or backstory.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ghosts can definitely be implied. It will depend on the story whether this is the better choice or not, of course. But there are some stories where we never learn what traumatized the character or created a belief in the Lie. Usually, it’s best to at least give readers a clue or two, so they can imagine the rest.


  1. […] “emotional issues,” isn’t enough. Author K.M. Wieland has discussed storytelling technique in the Marvel Universe and pointed out, rightly, that characters do need […]

  2. […] K.M. Wieland describes in her blog for writers, it is a character’s backstory (or history) that makes a reader identify […]

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