Backstory Can Kill Story…
Love it or hate it, backstory is essential to building a powerful, memorable character. And yet backstory can make writers pull out their hair.
Why does backstory present such a problem?
* It can slow the pace, bogging down here-and-now story with then-and-there facts;
* It’s easy to use backstory as a crutch, delivering information instead of creating emotions in the reader;
* It can be underdeveloped or unrelated to the unfolding story, reducing its power & causing readers to lose interest.
The truth is, authors often write backstory to satisfy ourselves, not the reader. We relay facts and information, hoping data will stand in for emotional investment.
But backstory that ‘tells’ readers why they should care isn’t Story; it’s information. Now the reader knows something.
But fiction readers don’t read to know. They read to feel.
So how do you give people all the feels without drowning them in details they don’t care about?
How do you balance the need to explain the “whys” with the primary need to drive the story forward?
How do you make the reader care?
Well, the good news is…
…Backstory Can Also Save Story
Lucky us, backstory can also save story.
Well-crafted backstory will create powerful characters with beautiful arcs. It can increase stakes, ramp up the plot, add tension, and it hands you theme.
In fact, powerful backstory can turn your protagonist into a hero (hero = all genders.)
“But how??” you ask.
I’ll show you two of the most powerful strategies below.
But first, a little romance special…
Romance Special: Backstory
There’s a reason I talk so much about backstory to romance writers. It has to do with goals & motivation.
If you’re following a standard structure approach to fiction, you can get tripped up when it comes to the romance.
In most non-romance fiction, you generally have a character who gets a story goal somewhere between 1-25% of the story. It can (and often does) get reversed or amplified at 50%, but the throughline is relatively consistent–they have to dig deeper and fight harder to achieve the same goal at the end.
Find the killer.
Build the bakery.
But in romance, you’re often–very often–going to have the character SACRIFICE that goal after the 75% mark. They’re going to make some big sacrifice that serves the romance/the other romantic lead(s). And it often (although not always) involves their story goal.
So the question becomes, “Wait. I’m supposed to make this person fight really hard to achieve XYZ thing, and now they’re just going to give it up…for another person?”
In romance, yes. Quite often. At least for one of your leads.
This is why motivation is so important for romantic leads. Motivation is important for all protagonists, but in romance, it takes on a special significance, because it’s the thing that will justify the sacrifice. That will make us not only understand, but cheer should they have to revise/change/sacrifice their goal.
There’s only one place you can get those kind of deep, complicated motivations.
The kind of motivations that drive someone to pursue the wrong goal, or pursue it the wrong way, for 50-75% of the story. The kind of motivations that make someone cling to a goal when it threatens to destroy the romance.
So let’s dive into one of the most powerful keys to crafting this sort of powerful backstory.
Make It Compelling
Make It Compelling
What do I mean, ‘compelling’?
I mean it compels the character.
Their backstory has made them who they are in pivotal ways.
It’s created emotions & core beliefs inside the character, and those emotions and beliefs compel the character to act in certain ways in the story.
Those beliefs & emotions compel them to pursue their story goal.
It’s part of what compels them to keep pursuing it when the going gets tough.
Motivation & Backstory
Look, the deal is this: your romantic leads need to have story goals. They need something they want to achieve.
You, gorgeous and evil Author, are going to put obstacles in their way. Lots of them. Soul-crushing, mind-bending, hurt-y obstacles.
That means a lot of reasons to quit.
You need a character who, when faced with the impossible task, the unbeatable enemy, or their deepest fear, doesn’t say, “Wow. This is worse than I thought. It’s too hard/scary/insurmountable. I’m out. Gonna head home & watch binge Game of Thrones (Seasons 1-5).”
Nope. Fiction isn’t real life. It’s hyper-life.
You need a highly motivated character. Someone who’s going to be stubborn as hell between 25%-75% of the story, determined to achieve their goal.
Of course, it it may be a terribly misguided goal. Our romantic leads, bless their hearts, often pursue things they shouldn’t, or pursue things in ways they shouldn’t. In fact, great characters almost always have to change some fundamental aspect of themselves–and their goal–late in the story.
But even here, how do you keep a character pursuing a misguided goal for 75% of the story? Especially once they realize pursuit is going to destroy the romance?
And in the end, at that Dark Night of the Soul moment, you need a character who is so motivated by the romance that they narrow their eyes and say (metaphorically), “I’m going to fix this/stop this/change this.” (i.e. do “The Thing” that will be required in Act III)
i.e. You need a highly motivated character. Someone who keeps going when the hits keep coming and the odds are stacked against them.
You don’t get that kind of power from an Inciting Incident.
The Inciting Incident Isn’t Enough
The Inciting Incident introduces the main conflict and gets the romantic leads together (or in a sequel, starts tearing them apart). It gives you a story goal.
It doesn’t give you why that goal matters so much to the character.
Inciting incidents turn the key and start the story.
They don’t drive the story.
They don’t drive your characters.
It’s Personal Now
Compelling backstory gives the story goal meaning. The goal isn’t just the goal. It means something to the protagonist.
Something about them.
If they fail, it means _____________.
If they succeed, it means ______________.
You might recognize this by another name: Internal stakes.
Backstory gives you internal stakes. (I know, right??)
When you have a compelling backstory, the goal means something more than itself.
The corporate CEO isn’t just pushing hard to complete the biggest, most questionable buyout his company ever did simply to buy another, bigger car. He’s doing it to ensure he’ll never be weak—or vulnerable—again.
Where on earth would something learn such a hard a lesson about power & vulnerability?
The heroine isn’t just saving the family ranch. She’s proving she isn’t a failure.
The teenager isn’t just trying to win the student council election. He’s trying to find a way to belong.
The warrior isn’t just saving a village. He’s making amends for past errors of judgment that destroyed someone he loved.
The high-powered DA isn’t just fighting injustice. She’s going after all the people who wronged her as a kid.
Or a billion+1 other possibilities.
The key is, it means something very personal, very private, and very deeply-seated to your character.
From that, you get character fuel.
The Little Things Matter
Authors are generally pretty good at this macro level work–tying our protagonists’ story goals to their backstory.
But backstory can do more.
You’re missing out on a lot if all their backstory did was make them rail against injustice, marry the wrong person, or be too scared to ever love again.
Make your backstory work harder. It can do a lot.
Why not make it inform the kind of car they drive, where they live, the food they eat, or how they dress?
Why not make it give them strong opinions about pop culture or the petrochemical industry?
It can compel them to never use a smart phone because they are fanatical about not being tracked. (“Why?” the reader whispers to herself).
It can make them wear flashy clothes because they like to be the center of attention. (“Why?”)
It can make them mistrust anyone who drives a sports car. (Why?)
It can make them do their grocery shopping at night because they don’t want to see anyone & have to engage in chit-chat. (Why?)
It can make them decorate their apartment with dozens of lamps because they never want to be in the dark again (Why?)
It can make them devote an entire room to their shoe collection because shoes are the gateway to the soul. (Why? And why do you need so many gateways???)
Dig deep for these sorts of details. They not only give your character dimension & unique angles, they perform the essential story task: add tension.
Backstory Raises Questions Readers Want To See Answered
When you do this, you automatically, organically create questions in the reader’s mind. The “Why?” question.
The ‘little things’ are basically your characters’ ‘tell.’ i.e. They tell the reader something’s going on.
You know what that does? It adds tension.
But the double-chocolate bonus is that now, the reader WANTS your backstory.
Remember, she’s going to to have all those “Why?” questions we talked about above. Now she wants the answers. That means, when you finally DO deliver facts & data about your protagonist’s backstory, it’s not an info dump anymore.
You’ve turned it into Story.
Done right, backstory is like a little detective tale. You drop in clues & hints when you have your character think, say, and do certain things in the story.
And when you finally give the reader the ‘whys’ and ‘whodunits’ of those things, it’s a satisfying beat.
You’re no longer slowing the pace or derailing forward momentum.
You’re telling Story. With backstory.