How to Work With Character Backstory

One of the questions I find myself discussing all the time is the issue of character backstory. When do we add it? How much do we add? How much is too much? Too little? Are flashbacks okay?

character backstory
Weave in character backstory in a way that engages readers.

How Much Character Backstory to Use

The bare minimum of backstory that you should include in your novel or picture book or memoir is this: enough to get readers plugged into the character. Maybe that amounts to ZERO backstory, if you start right away with some kind of conflict or action.

Aim for minimum viable product (from the business world), the leanest version of your character who can possibly fly. Maybe we learn one or two things about the character via telling, as is sometimes what happens at the beginning of a picture book. Maybe we don’t get any backstory at all and concentrate on present action. Maybe we get a piece of context (it’s the first day of school, the character just moved to a new place, they’re off to a practice to impress a college scout), and the rest is filled in over time.

What you categorically want to avoid is a big block of character backstory or flashback right away. My advice is always this: if you find yourself leaving the present moment to fill in backstory (even short backstory, like, “we’ve been best friends since kindergarten”), you may not be starting in the right place.

The key questions you want to answer with any backstory you include are: “What makes this character tick, and why should I care about them?”

When to Use Character Backstory

Your first few chapters or scenes should be action-heavy (with some nice introductory conflict) to get agents, publishers, and readers into your story. Once you feel that is established, you can start weaving in backstory or flashback starting in the second or third chapters. Why is the character’s situation XYZ? What is the significance of their objective and motivation? Which characters do we need to know more about in order to understand the present conflict?

BUT! Remember to keep up the balance of action and information, a crucial idea in keeping your pacing lean and mean and compelling. Whenever you give us a scene or paragraph of backstory, surround it with action, scene, and dialogue on either side.

Readers only perceive a story to be backstory-heavy and slow-moving when there aren’t injections of action and conflict to give the dense information a much-needed “lift.”

How to Fill in the Rest

Another thing to consider when you wonder how much character backstory to use, where, and when, is that you don’t have to use absolutely everything that you’ve developed. You may have done your homework and discovered where your character went to middle school and who their first crush was and how they like to relax after a long day. Some of this could wind up in your story, but some of it is for your edification only.

Sometimes, you will find that you need more depth. In that case, whole flashbacks of scenes and memories that not only flesh out your protagonist but the other characters in the story will become useful. But make sure these pull a lot of weight and deliver a lot of insight. The fewer and tighter your flashbacks, the better.

On the whole, it’s perfectly okay to leave elements on the “cutting room floor” as you prioritize action and conflict over heavy character backstory, especially at the beginning of your story.

Your opening pages are crucial for agent, publisher, and reader engagement. Hire me as your book editor for a Submission Package Edit, and I will give you insight into your query, synopsis, and first pages.

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