When Not to Tell Your Character’s Backstory

This week’s video compares two movie adaptations of The Scarlet Pimpernel to discover how we can best convey our characters’ backstories.

Video Transcript:

In other recent posts, we’ve discussed the value of backstory, even to the point of writing your backstory as your story when it’s the more interesting of the two. But, generally speaking, that’s going to be the exception to the rule. Backstory is actually at its most powerful when we don’t tell it—or rather when we don’t show it. The strength of backstory is its looming shadow. Readers know it’s there, they see it’s having an effect upon the characters, but they don’t always need to know the nitty-gritty details.

As a case in point, consider the two movie adaptations of The Scarlet Pimpernel—the one made in 1934 with Leslie Howard and the one made in 1982 with Anthony Andrews. The films are very similar in their telling of this classic story, with the exception that the much longer 1982 version includes almost a full hour detailing Sir Percival Blakeney’s courtship, marriage, and subsequent discovery of his wife’s apparent treachery against a doomed family of French nobles. In the 1934 version, these events comprise the backstory and are related only in bits and pieces throughout the body of the film. And, in my opinion, the earlier film is the stronger of the two because of this very thing.

Aside from the fact that allowing backstory to function as backstory streamlines your book to much a greater degree, doing so also allows you more leeway to bring the readers in as partners in your storytelling. If we can involve their imagination in helping us tell the story and fill in the blanks, half our battle in engaging their interest and emotion is won. The ballast provided by backstory gives our stories greater depth and meaning and opens up the potential for interpretation. If we turn too much of our backstory into the story or illustrate too much of it via detailed flashbacks, we rob our readers of the sense of weight given by the 9/10ths of the iceberg floating under the water of our stories.

Tell me your opinion: Do you think theres such a thing as revealing too much 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. To be honest, I haven’t read the book or seen either of the movies (my younger years were culturally deprived, and now I have no time). But I’d have to agree with your analysis. Seeing just hints of events in the characters’ backgrounds that are motivating them creates mystery that keeps me reading/watching to find out the answers. Having it all spelled out removes the mystery.

  2. Humans like mysteries. Even more than discovering the answers, we like maintaining the sense of possibility hidden in the unknown. That’s definitely true for character backstory.

  3. Easy to do too much blatent backstory. Try reading Les Miserables (Hugo) for an overdose of both back story and exposition. That was fine for that time’s style; it’s way overdone for today.

  4. Sometimes the backstory dumps in older stories can be charming. Mostly, they’re tolerable. But, you’re right, they could often have been so much more powerful just from a judicious deletion here and there.

  5. It’s quite possible to have too much back-story. I’ve read a fair number of books that have so much back-story that it bogs down the flow.

  6. The problem is largely that authors love their backstory, and they’re often loath to get rid of it.

  7. Backstory is like most things in writing: use it as much as you */must/*, but not a word more. I can’t imagine a story in which it is irrelevant that a character has a child—children are too integral to a parent’s life for it not to resonate through anything other than short story about something trivial. However, it’s easy to imagine a story in which the protagonist’s career doesn’t matter. Even in a story where it has some relevance, how the character arrived at her current job isn’t likely to matter: better to leave it out.

    Of course, that said, I am always sad if a novel doesn’t include at least a chapter to show whether or not—and why—the protagonist had piñatas at her birthday parties. How rounded can a character be without knowing their youthful piñata status? (I have to make the shameful admission that I knocked Behold the Dawn down half a star for that omission.)

  8. Definitely such a thing as too much backstory. I’ve read a few books that had tons of it which left me rolling my eyes and thinking, come on, already! Get on with the story.

  9. Hah, well, you’ve prompted me to research pinatas, and I must sadly inform you that such did not exist at the end of the 12th century. Childhood deprivation… that’s definitely what contributed to Annan’s sad plight!

  10. @Lorna: Ultimately, it’s a matter of the author figuring out his priorities. If the backstory is the story he really wants to tell, he needs to figure that out and own up to it – rather than trying to tell the reader two different stories at once.

  11. I used to struggle with this more until I wrote a short story in which the main character had amnesia that prevented him from knowing his own back story. During the course of the tale he would get glimpses of who he was and what had happened to him in bits and pieces. It was one of the better stories I had ever written and when I thought about why that was I realized it was because I had forced myself to limit the back story because of the characters amnesia, much more than I usually did. My new strategy is to try to approach each story as if there is some kind of amnesia–not literally but figuratively.

  12. I suspected as much. He seemed a piñataless child. He has all the symptoms: lack of joy, a desire to bash other people’s heads in, and a willingness to ride horses to death. I mean, who would kill a horse if you’d taken all of that out by beating up paper maché ones as a kid? Good thing that nobody had shiny paper coated candy or the blood would have soaked through the pages and made for sloppy reading.

  13. What a great exercise! Of course, I admit to having a definite weakness for amnesia stories, but, regardless, that would be a great way of setting backstory parameters for anyone having difficulty limiting themselves.

  14. @London: How right you are. All children need to get their bashing out early, and pinatas are the appropriate medium for such self-expression.

  15. I never had a piñata. Does that mean I had a deprived childhood? I’ll have to ask my MC if he had a piñata or not, ’cause that may be the root of all his problems. 😉

  16. I remember making a pinata as a kid. The making of it was actually more fun than the bashing (and this from an inveterate basher).

  17. Definitely. I recently read a sci-fi novel that would go into several pages long blocks of expository text to give the background of a faction or movement – and most of it was irrelevant to the story it was interrupting. Boring! I ended up setting the book aside because I got tired of wading though the back story muck. I’m sure the author put many hours into figuring out all those connections and details, but they didn’t need to be in the book, at least, not dumped on the reader en-mass like that.

  18. I just started writing an apocalypse story and I haven’t yet revealed anything about my character except that she’s on the run with a group of rebels, takes drugs and has a cute little brother to look after. I don’t want to reveal too much backstory as I quite like the air of mystery around her.

  19. I can see the advantages of keeping the backstory minimal in your writing. I’ll have to see how it applies to my work, but you’re right if we can get the reader involved in “filling in the blanks,” we can keep them engaged in the story.

  20. @Allan: Reminds me of a sci-fi novel I read last spring. It spent the first couple chapters introducing characters and dilemmas as a spaceship crashed – only to reveal thirty pages later that all that stuff was backstory to the *real* story that took place several generations later.

    @Aimee: Sounds perfect. You’ve presented a character who should have enough inherent conflict to keep readers grounded in the present, but all that conflict will also pique their interest about her past. The longer you can nurture that curiosity, the longer they’ll keep turning pages.

    @Traci: As you may have guessed, I’m actually a huge backstory nut. I *love* complicated and engaging backstories. But, as you can also guess from this post, I’d much rather have no backstory than too much. Backstory should, in a sense, enhance the mystery, not solve it.

  21. I am definitely a believer in keeping back story to a minimum and letting it be revealed. As Stephen King describes in On Writing, the story is a fossil lodged in the rock, and its is our job as literary palaeontologists to reveal it piece by piece. Lumping chunks of it on the reader seems inelegant and spoils the process. As a reader or consumer of media, I enjoy the gradual washing away of the dirt as the character’s skeleton becomes more and more clear.

    What troubles me is that however universal this advice, so many editors and publishers do not seem to heed it. There’s a plethora of books out there full of infodumps about characters and their lives and their physical appearance, almost down to the pores in their skin and the number of guests at their seventh birthday party. It gets pretty dull as a reader and frustrating as an author to see that level of indulgence gets to be in a book that is actually out in the world.

    An example of great backstory occurs to me – Fox Mulder from The X-Files. We hear fairly early on of his sister’s disappearance, the inciting incident that effectively drives the rest of his life, but it takes a good seven years for the entirity of that well to be explored, piece by piece, and for the full depth of the character and how this issue has affected him to be displayed. It makes for a much richer story than if Scully had been introduced to him and told in exposition “by the way, he thinks his sister was abducted by aliens but has always had the secret fear it was actually a human predator, and this has given him an insight into and passion for catching such people”. That’s seven years of developing a major facet of the character, summed up in a sentence that would severely damage the impact and emotional journey of piece-by-piece revelation.

  22. What you’ve described is one of the special advantages of a series of books, in contrast to a standalone book. However, it has its downfalls too. One of the reasons I’m often frustrated with series (particularly television series) is that they drag the plot, subplots, and backstories out as absolutely long as they can in order to keep people watching season after season. There’s a happy medium. We need to dole out backstory tidbits, but we also have to be prepared to satisfy (at least partially) their curiosity.

  23. I think that limiting the amount of backstory and making sure to dole it out gradually are two different issues. You can include lots of backstory and dole it out gradually, you can have a small amount of backstory doled out gradually, you can have a large amount of backstory dumped all together, or you can have a small amount of backstory dumped all together. And I wouldn’t say that there’s anything objectively wrong with any of those options. It’s all a matter of taste.

    My personal favorite is a large bordering on excessive amount of backstory doled out gradually. But really, it all depends on what kind of story you want to tell and who your target audience is.

  24. I agree up to a point. All of these methods are useful, and their use and success is definitely dependent on personal taste, but not all of them will work as well for all stories. Some stories hinge upon their backstories to the degree that the backstory *must* be explained in depth for things to make sense. Some stories need hardly any backstory to stay afloat. And some (like The Scarlet Pimpernel, IMO) work best somewhere in between.

  25. Yes, I think there is a time when there’s too much back story. In my novel, I have a nearly 10 page scene where one character tells another character a story (within the story) thus explaining the background and origin of the country she is in, and why the 2nd character will be critical to the history of the 1st country. But I felt like I revealed too much all at once. How can I get the story to read like a novel instead of a history book? What would you suggest?

  26. The most important thing to keep in mind is that if the information is worth sharing, it has to be in the story for a reason. It has to advance the plot. If it matters to the story, then it will also matter to the characters. Usually, this means you can maneuver the scene into a search for answers by one or more of the characters. If the characters have a legitimate reason to know something, you can then turn their discovery of that info into an interesting and important scene. Intersperse your info with dialogue and thread it throughout the story like breadcrumbs, so the reader is always keen to discover the next clue.

  27. Hannah Killian says

    In one of my short stories, the mentor figure and the antagonist were once childhood friends and eventually lovers. They parted due to. . .stuff, and don’t meet again until nearly thirty years later. I want to add the backstory, but I think I’ll just write a really short prequel instead. I’ll still allude to their history in the main story though.

  28. Ruben Ramos says

    Wow, and here I had an ENTIRE 23-page chapter (after chapter 1) based solely around the protagonist’s backstory, thinking it was a good thing to do. I even named it The Past. Thanks for saving me the embarrassment of that one.

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