Traditional Publishing

Character Backstory?

By G. Miki Hayden
Instructor at Writer's Digest University online and private writing coach – Saturday July 4, 2020

One question that often arises for an author is what comes first, the protagonist’s backstory or an introduction to the character in action.

Well, the reader might not care about the protag’s history immediately, but a quarter of the way through the novel, once we readers have seen her in action—her heroism, her vulnerability, the sacrifices she makes for others—we might wonder how she came to be this way. Well, let the author finally tell us…

The argument that turns this one around is that readers need to know her sad story immediately, her birth to a disability, the raid on her village by the rebels, and their murder of her brother. Then we’ll understand how later, she is able to do what she does to save her parents when the rebels come again.

So the backstory—later on? Or first?

But actually a third possibility exists. My client had started her novel a little way into her protagonist’s story. The character is working as the back-office person for a gang of car thieves. She seems nice in a way, but obviously has some moral imperfections. Many readers will have trouble identifying with her.

So an agent asked her to start with more of the explanation—in action—of how this came to be. No big drop-in of back story, but the agent’s suggestion was to show her in court after her daughter has been taken away. Now the protagonist reacts to thoughts of her own childhood in the “system,” which failed her badly. Readers find out how she was treated as a servant by foster parents who were supposed to take care of her.

Now perhaps we understand a little of how she wound up where she is.

No lengthy backstory is inserted—we don’t flash back to the past except for a few sentences here and there in her thoughts, and in her reaction to her child having to enter the foster system. The protagonist hasn’t been able to care for little Jilly as she should be cared for.

The backstory then isn’t discarded exactly, but it’s compacted and integrated with the current story, and the idea of what the protagonist has gone through is now delivered upfront.

From there, bolstering her backstory, the protagonist goes to the garage where her present employers do their business, and as she introduces a new car thief into what goes on here, we see the desperation, hope, and fear of the newbie. Thus we gain even more insight into the impact of what the loss of parental care can do to a young person.  

No big information dump is dropped. The backstory is integrated on the fly. Backstory is thereafter woven into the plot at points where an explanation of behavior may be needed.

A novel should generally start at the moment of action, but backstory may be required. In that case, when backstory is needed, threading the past of a character into the action-charged start will give an extra layer of why readers ought to care about this person.

Each scene can be shown in the present story with the added depth of how the character came to be this way. In this instance, a little backstory explains why the protagonist is suspicious of the judge, the caseworker, and the woman fostering the protagonist’s daughter. She has been there herself and never would have wanted her daughter to suffer the same nightmare she underwent.

Deciding what to do with backstory, especially backstory that is essential to understanding the characters and their actions requires a sense of balance.

Showing the Past
Does what happened need to be shown in flashback form? Or can it be displayed though internal thoughts and memories? Here, my client demonstrates how her character deals with her childhood abuse, her psychological mechanisms of getting through those awful moments by counting items in a series and by paying attention to the environment around her, not focusing on what’s happening to her. This defense continues in her current world when she’s confronted by whatever threatens her in various ways.

Now, the decisions the character makes add to a decision the reader makes about her. Knowing that she’s coming from a hard place and doesn’t have a lot of options, or at least doesn’t think she does, allows the reader to be a little less judgmental, a little easier on her and willing to see her through this difficult time.

After we understand the adversity the protagonist has faced, we like her a lot better when we see her trying to help the new car thief, despite the newbie’s hostility and lack of appreciation.

Another way to insert backstory without a big information dump is through dialogue. The protagonist can be talking to a therapist or friends who she trusts. Snippets may add necessary information or pique our curiosity about what went on in the past—something significant we find out about later. The warning here is not to make this the occasion for a whole lot said. Again, the narration of the past should be essential and brief, and relate to events taking place in the “now.”

The main precaution is to not have the character walking down the street while thinking about her past and how she came to this point. This is a static way to open and pretty much means the manuscript will soon be closed and placed in the circular file.
Whatever advice writers have been given about creating character charts doesn’t mean readers need to see those delineations in stories. That’s often for the author to know and to inform choices in the story and not to reveal in less-than-intriguing detail in the novel itself.
Of course, if authors are writing a sequel, they might need to sum up some of what happened in books one and two, which was what I felt was required in editing the third of a trilogy. With no explanation being given of what had gone on before, I wasn’t concerned by the sudden death of a character who had been essential in book two. So I advised the author to start with a scene of her while she was still alive. After all, the rest of the novel was about hunting for her killer.

And, of course, the action used to define a character at the beginning doesn't have to be the breathless, life-at-risk sort of event the author will build up to. It can be some of the day-to-day happenings, the little comings and goings that make up a life and define us as individuals. That tells us about the character so that we care about the person enough to want to know the backstory and to come to worry when the person is in mortal peril.

About the Author

Writing the MysteryThe Naked WriterG. Miki Hayden is the author of the comprehensive writing style guide, The Naked Writer, and the award-winning guide for mystery writers, Writing the Mystery: A Start-to-Finish Guide for Both Novice and Professional, both of which are available now from JP&A Dyson.

"Whatever your habitual errors are, punctuation, writing style, or even not understanding what the agents/editors are looking for, if you'd like to correct your flaws, take a class with me at Writer's Digest: Or for some less-expensive guidance, you might want to download The Naked Writer for your Kindle at Amazon. Yes, I work with clients privately. Find me on Facebook."

G. Miki Hayden always has a new class starting at Writer's Digest. The feedback she gives is personal, thorough, and actionable.