Your characters didn’t appear out of the ether, newly created on page one of your book. At least, they shouldn’t feel like they did. They had lives before the story starts, families, jobs, religious affiliations, pets. If you’re going to make them feel real to the reader, you need to know their backstories. You need to at least think about where they came from.
But how much of their backstory should your reader see?
Backstory can be useful when creating characters to sketch out their entire lineage and life story. It can help you get a handle on who they are, so that when you’re writing their dialogue and plotting their actions, you’ll know what they will–and won’t–do. This is useful.
But when it comes time to actually write the story, consider not including that backstory in your text. Think about leaving it all in your notebook. Ask yourself very seriously how much of that backstory matters to the current story. Do we really care whether the Space Pirate Captain’s grandmother was fond of a certain brand of tea?
Everything you write in your story should be meaningful to that story. It should serve a purpose. Whether you’re writing a 5,000 word short or a 200,000 word epic, you just don’t have room for extraneous information.
Gary Gygax, the co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons, used to talk about character stories. His players would come to him with fully fleshed-out characters who had deep, rich experiences before they arrived at the table. “Character story,” he said, “is what happens between level one and level five.”
(If you don’t understand what that means, you may be reading the wrong writing blog, by the way.)
In other words, the best way to get character details across is to show them. To dramatize them during the story.
There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that backstory–whether it’s told as flashback or narration or a letter found in an old dictionary–slows narrative down to a crawl. It distracts your reader from the rip-roaring plot of the adventure they came to read. It brings up the question of why, if this old news is so important, did you choose to start your book later on in time? Why not write the prequel first?
The other reason to avoid extensive backstory is front-loading. Front-loading is the problem that occurs when a writer needs to put a lot of detailed information into Act I, information the reader will need to comprehend and digest before they can understand the rest of the story. Front-loading is bad. It feels like homework. It doesn’t just slow down your plot–it turns it into a slog. A death march.
If your plot hinges entirely on what a character’s father said to them when they were a child, if your worldbuilding requires you to include three chapters on how the kingdom came to be ruled by somebody’s housecat… that’s front-loading, and it can ruin a great book.
Front-loading isn’t just a character problem, as we saw in that last example, but when it comes attached to characterization–when it’s all about backstory–it’s doubly deadly. There are readers who enjoy a good history lesson at the start of a book. But when you front-load the backstory of your main (or even worse, your secondary) character(s), you sabotage your story right from the start.
The first act of your story is about establishing things as they are now. Not how they got their way. The first act is where you tell us who the important characters are–if you have a lengthy scene with your character’s math teacher, then your story becomes, de facto, about that math teacher. The first act is about establishing stakes, but front-loading backstory makes it feel like your story is just the epilogue to some other tale.
Take a very close look at the backstory of the character you’re writing right now. How did that backstory effect them? How did it change them? Rather than describing those past events in detail, could you instead get away with, say, just showing us who they are today? Could the collection of tics and mannerisms that make up a character speak for themselves? Can we get that your character is an alcoholic not by describing their drinking days, but by showing how terrified they are of going to a wedding party where everybody will be drinking?
If your backstory is slowing you down, cut it. You may have to find ways to get information across–creative ways, innovative ways. But solving problems like that is ninety per cent of what it means to be a writer.