No really, it can!
I’ll show you how.
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.
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 in.
Five Keys To Crafting Must-Read Backstory
Five Keys to Crafting Must-Read Backstory
- Make It Compelling;
- Craft A Single Defining Moment;
- Layer It;
- Make Plot Tap Backstory, Hard;
- Make Page One Character & ‘The End’ Character Mirrors of Each Other
Key #1: Make It Compelling
Key #1: Make It Compelling
What do I mean, ‘compelling’?
I mean it’s backstory that compels the character.
It’s 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. It compels 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 hero or heroine.
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. (Told you!)
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.
Little things are basically your character’s ‘tell.’ i.e. They tell others something’s going on.
That adds tension.
But the double-chocolate bonus is that now, the reader WANTS your backstory.
She’s going to to have all those “Why?” questions, and she’s going to want 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.
Onto Key #2…
Key #2: Single Defining Moment
Key Two: A Single, Defining Moment
Backstory is often rather…vague. Like a mist, it covers the past. They had “a tough life.” “Went to war.” “Lost a parent.” And so on.
Other times we go on and on, for paragraphs (or pages!), narrating our characters’ histories with a plethora of minor, generic, or uninteresting details, a sort of “My Hero 101” course, but somehow never get to the heart of the thing.
The heart of the thing is: How did that backstory help create the person we meet on Page One?
But a generic history filled with lots of ‘busy work’ details is rarely as compelling as a single, defining moment that changed everything.
Whatever your protagonist’s backstory, craft a moment in time that truly wrecked them.
It can represent the whole, i.e. be a microcosm of a lifetime of similar experiences, or it can be a standalone event that came in like a wrecking ball.
It can cement a worldview that was already developing, or destroy everything they once believed.
But whether it’s the final straw or a new horizon, make it A SPECIFIC, SINGULAR MOMENT that changed everything.
From that moment on, they became the person who steps onstage on Page One.
The Moment of Change
“Okay,” you might be saying, “It changed everything. But how?“
In two very specific ways.
A Single Defining Moment creates:
1) Intense, frozen emotions;
2) Core beliefs about themselves &/or the world.
That moment will prove XYZ was true with such raw emotional power, the character is now frozen in that place forever.
Well, at least until you get to The End.
Then deploy that moment. Don’t reveal the details too soon, but do hint at it. Drop bread crumbs, so readers know something is up, and are dying to find out what it is.
Pro Tip: One of the best ways to drop bread crumbs? Re-read the above key,“Make It Compelling.”
Core Beliefs & Frozen Emotions
I want to talk a little about these two essential elements you need to extract from your Single Defining Moment, and why they can be so valuable.
You can use the SDM to ‘center’ your character’s approach to the world, their pursuit of their story goal, & their resistance to the other romantic lead(s).
Remember, the SDM was so intense, it created raw, frozen emotion(s) and rigid core beliefs. These are now so deeply central to the character’s self, they’re at the core of every interaction & choice they’re faced with.
If they were scared in their Single Defining Moment, they now see the world in terms of a danger-safe dichotomy. Everything gets assessed in those terms.
What kinds of things do you think someone might do if they approached everything as a threat-level analysis?
What kind of job might they take? What sort of relationships might they have? Where might they live? How many locks might they have on their door? (Remember the first key, “Make it Compelling”? This is how it works!)
What if they were betrayed in their Single Defining Moment? Maybe they now have a core belief, “You can’t trust anyone.” Or maybe, “I can’t trust myself.”
What kind of choices do you think a person might make if they believed that at the center of their soul?
And on and on….
It can be anything.
It just has to be something.
The Trouble With Trauma
:with a nod to Star Trek and tribbles:
Have I convinced you you need a Single Defining moment to get some nice, angsty emotions & faulty core beliefs to fuel your character? Great. Now you have to find or build that moment, or refine what’s already there.
A word of caution: it doesn’t need to be The Worst Thing That Ever Happened To Anyone in the Whole Wide World.
Don’t get on the trauma train and devise the most awful histories imaginable for your characters, thinking this will make them empathetic or angsty. Trauma is not necessarily what we’re looking for. Because trauma, however horrific you make it, is not going to be as powerful to read about as a SINGLE instance of something that scarred your character forever.
A formative moment. A threshold in time when everything changed.
Anything can do it. Trauma is not required.
- Someone hanging up the phone when you called for help could do it.
- A beloved aunt moving away, leaving you all alone in a lonely world could do it.
- Overhearing a group of ‘friends’ talking trash about you at a party could do it.
Anything can do it.
It doesn’t need to be the Worst Thing Evah for the world at large.
It just has to have shaped your character forever.
The Trouble With No Trauma
Since I just made a big deal about “OMG, don’t over-traumatize your story if it doesn’t fit,” let me be clear: You probably don’t want to go the opposite direction and have an absent or insignificant backstory.
Sometimes characters’ backstories just sort of…sit there. We either know nothing about their past, or if we do, it’s all…meh. Inconsequential. Insignificant.
That means it won’t be a driving force for the character in the story.
It has no fuel.
It doesn’t matter if your story has big, end-of-the-world stakes or is a quirky rom-com with stakes that go no further than the characters’ hearts. For a truly powerful All Is Lost moment, you need a deeply motivated character.
Someone who has to relearn a fundamental lesson. Experience an emotion fully, maybe for the first time since their SDM. Unpack a faulty core belief and change it, at least when it comes to the other romantic lead.
Deep = emotional & formative. aka: Backstory.
And the more specific you make it, the more powerful it is for the reader.
An Example: Turning Generic Backstory Into A Single Defining Moment
Let’s say you have a protagonist who’s had a rough life, with an alcoholic, abusive father.
That definitely has the ouch factor. We all understand how awful that could have been. But…those are facts. Information. Relaying information won’t dredge up emotions in your reader.
We’ll understand, but we won’t feel.
But give that man a Single Defining Moment that occurred when he was seven years old, when his alcoholic father came home at midnight, as the grandfather clock chimed out twelve slow, ponderous beats, and he watched his father beat his mother while our protagonist backed up and hid in the linen closet….?
Now you have deep, powerful, specific emotions. Powerful, core beliefs you can develop, all around that one moment.
And importantly…an SDM gives you sensory details. This is key. Specific, concrete sights, sounds, tastes, smells, physical sensations…all connected to that Single Defining Moment, all still alive inside the character.
Remember ‘Make It Compelling?’ key? Think about how you could use an SDM like this to fuel some compelling traits or idiosyncracies for this protagonist–some ‘tells’ for the reader. Does he hate grandfather clocks? Heck, maybe he has no clocks at all in his home. Maybe he does a reverse Cinderella, and is never home at midnight. Maybe he has a single bath towel, no linen closet.
And a thousand other possibilities.
The emotions & beliefs (and ‘tells’) they come out of this moment with will depend on your character. But dig to find them. Dig deep. Find a core, visceral emotion that would have come from that moment + an accompanying core belief about themselves &/or the world, and a sensory memory or two that they avoid like the plague.
Hold that deep knowledge of your character when you write every scene. Who would they be if that frozen emotion were still alive inside them? What would they do right now if they believed XYZ?
Let it inform everything, especially early in the story. It’s become their M.O. for life.
Then let it become the thing that slowly changes as the story progresses, especially as relates to the other romantic lead.
Guess what you get then? An arc! :throws confetti:
We’re having fun now!
Onto Key #3…
Key #3: Layer It
Backstory Key Three: Layer It
Whatever core beliefs & emotion your protagonist has as a result of that formative event, don’t stop at a single emotion.
Give it a second layer.
Anger? Under it is shame.
Shame? Under it is fear.
Fear? Under it is guilt.
Guilt? Under it is anger.
You pick the layers, just add another, deeper one your protagonist has been hiding…even from themselves.
The top layer is the expected emotion & belief. The obvious one. The one the world might know about, but the character definitely does.
The second layer is the one they’ve spent their life hiding…maybe even from themselves.
In fact, they’ve built a life that’s in some way designed to hide them from it. To never, ever have to face/cope with/feel that second layer.
Expanding The Example: Layering A Single Defining Moment & Its Aftermath
You have a protagonist whose Single Defining Moment was the night his alcoholic father came home while our seven-year-old protagonist hid in the closet.
Can you imagine what sort of beliefs might come from this? You bet.
Maybe “You can’t trust anyone.” Or, “Never get close to anyone because they’ll get ripped away.” Or even, “If you’re weak, you get destroyed.”
(See how it can be anything?? Dig deep into your protagonist and find their hidden truths.)
The accompanying emotions might be…oh, I don’t know, let’s say anger. Rage. Fury.
Maybe his guiding principle becomes, “I’ll never be weak again.”
But under that? That’s where the real treasure trove is, because it’s the thing the hero is trying to hide from himself.
Maybe it’s the belief, “I was a weak & coward. I can’t protect the people I love.” Along with a deep, crushing shame.
Now you have some really juicy, painful things to dig into as the story progresses. Powerlessness. Impotency. Passivity. Physical danger. Protection. Anger. Shame. Not taking action when you could. Avoiding emotional connections.
See how backstory can power up plot?
This protagonist has been compelled to build a life that has all the trappings of power…
…because of his fear of being vulnerable…
…because underneath that, he’s deeply, crushingly ashamed.
As the story progresses (aka: as things gets worse and worse…and worse) he’ll be forced to face these things head on. To go deeper. To feel deeper.
This will push your story forward, because you can keep offering reveals for the reader, which creates rising tension.
Pro Tip: The coolest part? These deeper layers hand you your Black Moment.
With this second layer, you have a deep, dark, juicy Pit of Despair to drop your protagonist into before the final climax. A moment where they’re forced to face the inner truth they’ve been avoiding all along.
Aka: theme. :more confetti:
Pro Tip: Whatever your protagonist realizes in their Pit of Despair, and what they do with it afterwards, is usually your theme.
Told you this was fun! The good times keep rolling in Key #4….
Key #4: Plot Taps Backstory, Hard
Backstory Key Four: Make Plot Tap Backstory, Hard
Don’t have a random–albeit awesome–plot you set a random character into. Weave them together.
Make THIS plot be perfectly crafted to deconstruct THIS character. A story that’s going to hit hard, directly at those frozen emotions & core beliefs.
Sure, you might have an awesome plot that would be uncomfortable for anyone—I mean, who wants to have their co-worker turn up dead, discover corruption in their own family, or fight an army of zombies??
But if you make it uncomfortable for your heroine specifically, because of her backstory, your readers will care a whole lot more.
Give your protagonist a backstory (& a connected personality trait or two) that’s directly at odds with what they’re going to have to do in the story.
Get them dirty.Make the plot get them dirty.
Have the plot push them directly into situations they don’t want to deal with & circumstances they’re unequipped to handle.
Specifically, escalate the demands on what they thought to be true–of themselves or the world.
Engineer plot events that test the core beliefs & frozen emotions that came from their Single Defining Moment.
This is all about emotion.
This is what the romance genre was built for.
Emotional Comfort Zones
Romantic leads push each other out of their comfort zone emotionally. We call it “push our buttons,” but it’s really “push our most ingrained beliefs and warded-off emotions.”
Make the conflict–the external plot yes, but ESPECIALLY the romance conflict– test those beliefs. Make it tap into emotions they’ve spent a lifetime warding off or disavowing or thinking don’t apply to them. Make it prove to them the lessons they learned are faulty, or insufficient for what they’re facing now.
Tie the outer boundaries of that comfort zone to their backstory.
Got a plot that requires confronting authority? Build a backstory where your hero never confronted…but to save/assist the other lead, he must.
Got a plot that requires building alliances? Craft a heroine who’s a loner from way back because…reasons. But to join with/win the other lead, she’ll ‘show up’ in the world to claim them.
What did they learn in the past that’s going to be a problem in the here-and-now story? What’s going to make them almost fail the other lead?
As the plot progresses, keep engineering events that push your protagonist into situations that are difficult for him/ her/ them at a deeply personal level.
Ensure the actions required to succeed are in direct conflict with their core beliefs & worst fears, which are derived from their backstory.
Escalate the demands on each of them—start small and get bigger.
This powers up your characters because it gives them stakes & motivation. With intense emotions underlying the things they do (or avoid doing!) they tend to act in more dramatic, extreme, & interesting ways.
Backstory That Matters NOW
At the start of this article, I mentioned that backstory can throw off pace because it tells the reader there-and-then facts that aren’t connected to what’s happening in the here-and-now story.
Ensuring that your plot taps on those SDM beliefs & emotions will solve this problem.
It makes backstory relevant to the unfolding story.
Instead of being a pause in the action, backstory becomes fuel that pushes the character—and the story—forward.
A emotionally-driven backstory that’s relevant to the plot gives readers insight into how the situations facing your protagonist are hard for her specifically. It makes the reader uncertain what the character will choose to do, and doubt whether they can handle what’s coming.
i.e. It raises tension.
The more your reader is thinking, “Um…this character REALLY doesn’t ABC…and the plot now requires them to ABC??”…
You get tension.
The more your reader sees your protagonist is scared of XYZ/not good at XYZ…and the plot requires XYZ?
The more your reader sees they’ve fought their whole live to have LMNOP…and now the plot requires them to sacrifice LMNOP?
These plot events are your character’s tests. They’re true tests because of your character’s backstory.
As your character goes through the plot, they change. Transform. They become a different person than they were in Chapter One.
Are we having fun yet??
Hope so, because we’re about to wrap it up with Key #5…
Key #5: Mirror Images
Backstory Key Five: Opening State & End State Are Mirrors Of Each Other
Set the end state for your character at the opposite end of the continuum from where they began the story, belief-wise, emotion-wise, and action-wise (i.e. what they can &/or are willing to do).
The time continuum we’re talking about is Page One vs. Act III.
The character we see in these two places must be different in some huge, fundamental way. It doesn’t have to be ‘huge’ in terms of external stakes. Again, you don’t need an end-of-the-world story.
You DO need an end-of-the-person-I-was story. The change must be huge in terms of internal change.
Who I Used To Be (Page One) vs. Who I Have Become (Act III).
Make these states a mirror.
Craft a backstory so the deeds the character will be required to do at the end are impossible to imagine when the story opens.
The Impossibility Factor Creates Heroes
The person in the mirror on Page One could never do what’s required in Act III.
You can craft this symmetry whether you’re a plotter or a pantser.
If you work from plot, great. Just nail down the plot you want, especially the Act III actions that will be required of your romantic leads, then craft a backstory for them that makes that deed impossible to imagine when the story opens.
If you write by the seat of your pants, or work from character more than plot, that’s great too. Hone in on your character’s core beliefs and second-layer emotions. Ask: “What would they never, ever do at the start of the story?” Now engineer an Act III moment that requires them to do precisely that at the end of the story, to choose/claim the romance.
The ‘impossibility’ factor is where you get the real power. The more extreme the change, the more we fear they’ll never get there…and the more we cheer when they do.
A competent warrior who has to rally the village to stop the bad guys from destroying it?
A clumsy, shy shepherd who’s always hunkered in the background and followed orders because he believes he doesn’t have what it takes to be a leader, who has to rally that village?
Way more fears and cheers.
An amateur sleuth who wants to solve the murder of a coworker?
An amateur sleuth wracked by guilt for not having protected her younger brother when they were kids?
Gut punch. Failure becomes personal.
A gung-ho defense attorney who has to take on a cabal of wealthy, corrupt investors to save a backwoods town?
An ambitious corporate V.P. determined to crawl out of her own backwoods past, who’s built a career serving that cabal of wealthy, corrupt investors, and now has to fight them on to save a backwoods town?
This is the difference between a protagonist and a hero.
What a character achieves in the plot/story world can make the reader cheer.
But how difficult the deed was, how deep they had to dig to succeed, how much they have to change, is what makes your character heroic.
It’s also what makes readers buy your next book. And fall in love with your characters. And tell all their friends about it.
That’s one of the most fun parts of all.
I hope so!
Because Romance Writing Lab offers 1:1 story coaching and is powering up courses & summits & nonfiction craft books, all in pursuit of our ultimate goal: helping romance writers conquer the world. I mean, write fantastic, powerful, must-read fiction.