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 in to two of the most powerful keys.
Two Keys To Crafting Must-Read Backstory
Two Keys to Crafting Must-Read Backstory
- Make It Compelling
- Craft A Single Defining Moment
Key #1: Make It Compelling
Key #1: 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.
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 have proved 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 you deploy that moment. Don’t reveal all the details too soon, but do hint at them. 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.
What if they were scared in their Single Defining Moment? Maybe 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 even, “I can’t trust myself.”
What kind of choices do you think a person might make if they believed either of those 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.
It can be tempting to get on the trauma train, and devise the most awful history imaginable for our characters, thinking this will make them empathetic or angsty. Or motivated.
Don’t do it. Hop off that train if it doesn’t fit your story or character. 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 intense emotions & powerful core beliefs you can develop, all around that one moment.
And importantly…the 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–some ‘tells’ for the reader.
Does he hate grandfather clocks? Heck, maybe he has no clocks at all in his home, and has disabled the clock on his phone. (Remember, fiction is hyper-reality. Have fun with it. Push your characters past some boundaries of ‘normal’ or ‘reasonable’ or ‘regular.’)
Or maybe our protagonist handles things by doing a reverse Cinderella, and he’s never home at midnight, not even when he’s exhausted…he just treads water (figuratively) away from home, until the witching hour from his SDM has past.
How about the linen closet detail? How could that affect him now–compel him now? Maybe he has a single bath towel, and the other romantic lead is saying, “Dude, really?” But the hero shuts down and won’t talk about this strange oddity.
Or maybe he has no linen closet at all! He stores his shoes in there.
Or a thousand other possibilities.
Are you starting to see how you can riff off an SDM, extract emotional power from it, and use it to build motivations, story goals, romantic conflict, & a character arc?
The specific emotions & beliefs will depend on your character and the tone & genre of your story. But dig to find them. Dig deep.
Find a core, visceral emotion that could have come from that moment + an accompanying core belief about themselves &/or the world, and a sensory memory or two 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:
Told you we were going to have fun!
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 craft fantastic, powerful, must-read fiction.