The #1 Problem With Backstory (and Its Simple Fix)

The #1 Problem With Backstory (and Its Simple Fix)

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).

Kermit's_Swamp_Years_Frogs_

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.

This event is the Ghost or wound in your character’s past. (Lots more on the Ghost here.)

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.

Jupiter Ascending James Darcy Telescope Gif

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!

The #1 Problem With Backstory (and Its Simple Fix)

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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 find back story a something very important that can either be shown or not. Every author, I believe must give their characters some backstory, even if it is only for extra motivation. Backstory to a novel is as core muscles to a body. It is a spine. A boat’s keel. I may be running out of metaphors, but I love a good backstory. My current novel has many hints to the backstory. And it is all building up the reveal. Its tragedy will make things clearer. It shows a piece of character arc.
    In short. Backstory? Yes. Because who wants to be spineles.
    Thank you for the great post.

  2. K.M., very helpful. You brought some things into focus here on how a backstory can be effective. Enjoyed. Learned.

  3. I try not to use any long flashback backstories unless it adds something to either a character’s development, the story, or both. Of course that doesn’t mean I’ll never mess up and add something pointless.

  4. This post just gave me four paragraphs of notes on how to make my Character’s “Ghost” more clear, and strengthen theme around a unifying concept that touches all major players. Knowledge feeds imagination.

  5. Marilyn Delson says

    Two main characters who start a relationship, each having equally strong backstories. My solution is to have two scenes within appropriate chapters (as the story develops) which give their POVs at time backstory was occurring. Does this timetripping and change in POV with a chapter confuse the reader, or does it give reader better understanding about what is happening in real time within the chapter?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It depends. There is definitely a time and a place for flashbacks. But they have to be used very skillfully. Usually, I would caution against them. There are less obtrusive ways of relaying important backstory. For example, creating scenes in which it’s important for a character to reveal backstory revelations to another character not only provides what is usually a more seamless integration of the backstory–it also provides a better opportunity for development of characters and their relationships.

  6. This has helped me a lot. Seeing as this is one of the problems that I have been up against with a story.

  7. Thank you for the great advice! This is something I’m have a lot of fun implementing in the writing process.

  8. My main problem is finding the right place to put it in! I’ve got part of the back story several chapters deep into the book and then nothing. oops. There’s to many problems with the book lately so I’m just doing a hard revision on all the chapters. I’m hoping along the way I can find a place to put the backstory in sooner. Have made so many mistakes around that middle chapter it’s nuts. The middle chapter is fine, but the ones around it aren’t.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      A good rule of thumb is: if the backstory isn’t necessary to any current moment in the plot, then it probably doesn’t need to be there anyway. Dribble hints and teases, but don’t share backstory until that moment when readers *need* to know it to understand something important about the main plot.

  9. Andrea Rhyner says

    Creating characters is my most difficult piece of any story. The ghost, lie, wants and really needs are the most helpful things I’ve come across so far in creating characters. I still have a hard time with it, but I’m not sure why. I try to find a picture on the internet to show the character. Still, I can’t feel them. Do you have any advice on how you get past this?

    thank you,
    Andrea

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sometimes I can’t fully discover a character until I actually start writing them–and even then, sometimes I have to write a *lot* before I find the rhythm. I would recommend doing some practice sheets. Just play with the character, get inside his head. Maybe do an interview, in which you just throw questions at him and really make him dig down deep to answer.

  10. I try to make my flashbacks and backstories matter, but I never thought of it as a few questions you need to ask before you include them in the book. Thanks for providing us with a more firm method to make sure these flashbacks and backstories don’t waste the reader’s time.

    Probably my two favourite uses of backstory that I’ve used in my writing take place in book 2 and 3 of the series I’m trying to get published. In the second book, it flashes back to one of the main characters’ childhood – her very worst memory, and the main villain is the cause. It’s why she’s still terrified of him to this day and can’t even mentally function when he’s around.

    In book 3, around half of the book is a flashback. It’s a tragic lstory where the series main character is found by some of her enemies from her work as a mercenary, and they destroy the normal life she’s trying to build. The main plot is an epic 2-way revenge story. I haven’t quite figured out how I want to balance the story though – should there be more focus on the tragic love story or the action heavy stuff?

  11. Thank you for sharing this. I have written some backstory scenes that were referred to in my first story. But not shared until the second story. 1. Why my character left her homeland. 2. How my character met leading male #2 & why they cling to each other. I have been wondering if I am giving too much away by sharing bits of the secondary characters’ back ground to explain why they become so close to the main character so fast.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sometimes information like this is important for establishing realism and suspension of disbelief. If you’re worried readers won’t understand or buy into the characters’ close relationship happening so quickly, then that would definitely be a good reason to start sharing pertinent backstory details.

  12. Great post! I struggle a lot with backstory. The first problem for me is actually coming up with one! And then once I have a backstory for a character, I can never decide how much to reveal and how much should just be subtext.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Treat backstory just like you would any other important information in the story: never info dump it and only share it when it really matters to the plot.

  13. LadyHarmonia says

    What is your opinion about alluding to a backstory during the main events of the story,but actually writing the backstory as its own separate book? I guess it would be like a prequel. That something I always enjoyed when reading and writing. Sometimes its better not knowing to much on the past events, and having a detailed account about them separate from the main story can be more interesting.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is definitely a fun approach. As long as the prequel doesn’t become anticlimactic due to the knowledge shared in the main story, you shouldn’t have a problem.

    • LadyHarmonia, I have done that. Wrote a WWII novel, 1939-1945, from an unusual angle – that is, from the POV of a German general (see my earlier response way way back around 30 January). I was so intrigued by my protagonist I needed to fill in his backstory starting in 1912. It turned out to be a four-novel historical series. By doing the backstory research I found out much of what had mystified me about the Hitler era.
      Go for it.

  14. K.M.,

    What do you mean by the ghost? Does every character need a backstory?

    In my co-author book I have a lot of characters like Valkor, Leilani, Cara, Zane, Zola, her husband and also Maia, the creator goddess to name a view.

    So in the book I have about sixteen characters or sixteen characters.

  15. Ms. Albina says

    K.M,

    Do you have an example of a written backstory of a character? Since I have to write one for all of my characters.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Not off the top of my head. But if you watch while reading your favorite books, you can study how great authors sow their backstory in.

    • My suggestion is to first know yourself what the backstory is – the events, sometimes painful, that made the character what they are when the story begins.

      Once you, as author, have that understanding of the character, dole it out in pieces where it’s relevant to the story.

      My main character is a college student who’s quite shy and anxious, which has prevented him from having any serious relationships with girls. Much of that comes from a fear of failure, and much of that comes from his relationship with his father.

      All through the story I’ve shown the father and son struggle to relate, and there will be a big argument to start the third act. My current chapter looks at Dad’s family, and his history with his own father. Even though I’m yet to be a great author, If you email me at [email protected] I’d be glad to send you that current chapter as an example.

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