Readers don’t need to be regaled with great slabs of personal history about characters in order to care about them, or in order to understand what’s happening. And it’s not just characters, but also settings, both physical and social; while a sense of place is needed so that your characters aren’t interacting in a vacuum, particularly in speculative fiction genres where world-building is key, there is a point where too much information is distracting.
What the writer needs to know and what the reader needs to know
Often, in an attempt to set up the story, in time and place as well as character and key event, a writer will get bogged down in the backstory. Particularly in the opening chapters. And let me be specific – in chapter 2 after a dramatic event in chapter 1. It’s almost as if the writer is saying to the reader, ‘I’ve started with something to grab your attention, but hang on a minute, let me pause to fill you in.’
I understand why writers do this. It is vital they are intimately familiar with the history of their characters and sometimes also of the locations where the action takes place. This backstory is needed to create compelling and believable characters and three dimensional settings. However, the reader doesn’t need to know that level of detail to follow the story, to care about the characters, or to be curious about what happens next.
On the flip side, sometimes writers don’t put in enough backstory, leaving the reader unclear about characters’ motivations and their frame of mind in different scenarios. If a character is two-dimensional the reader struggles to be interested in what happens to them. Backstory detail helps your characters become three-dimensional, complex beings. It’s a balancing act – you need a certain amount of backstory for a reader to engage and identify with characters and places, but need to steer clear of what are called ‘info dumps’, slabs of information that slow the pace or stall the narrative.
Whether you are writing fiction or narrative non-fiction such as memoir, the trick is to be able to distinguish between the information the reader needs to know in order to follow your story thread at that moment, and all those other fascinating things you could say about the characters and places, that can be omitted. The problem writers often have is recognising which bit of backstory is necessary for the reader to know and where to put it. From my experience, it’s a lot less than you think. And, a lot later than you think.
Inserting backstory in context
Let the reader discover who the characters are over time, much like we get to know people in real life. We all have a backstory. What we choose to reveal to others, and when, depends on context – where are we, who are we with, what is going on around us. And the context itself provides information. We can glean a lot of background information about people – and characters – by the contexts in which they appear, and by what they say and do.
Think in terms of inserting snippets of backstory in context. Look for are places where the context of the scene creates an opportunity to reveal a particular backstory detail, where you can ‘salt’ the manuscript with backstory using dialogue, narrated action, description and imagery. Backstory can be revealed through spoken dialogue, through narration around dialogue, through action, and through description and imagery.
Backstory snippets can help the reader understand a character’s frame of mind and motivations in different scenarios. Done well, these snippets reveal just enough, and not too much. They give the reader a piece of the puzzle of who the character is, keeping the reader curious, but also building empathy.
Guiding the readers’ emotional responses
The choices you make about what the reader knows directs their emotional response to the characters. While it is crucial that you the writer understand your characters’ motivations so that their actions and choices ring true, you can also choose to conceal the backstory that has shaped these motivations. You, the writer, can manipulate the way the reader sees the characters on the page for dramatic effect. What the reader knows, and doesn’t know, about the backstory can drive dramatic tension and narrative momentum.
Backstory shapes plot
There is no one right way to handle backstory – it depends on the story you are telling – but there are two important principles to understand. Firstly, you, the writer, need to know the backstories of your characters to understand their motivations and goals, both of which fuel their emotional journey which, in turn, shapes the plot. Secondly, you need to find the right balance of not too much, not too little, and consider carefully how backstory can support and strengthen the drama of your narrative.
It takes many drafts
It can take many drafts to get backstory right in your manuscript. You may start with too much, or you may start with too little. You may realise that you need to adjust a character’s backstory to amplify the themes you are exploring or to increase the dramatic tension in places. The more awareness you bring to your use of backstory, the more effective it will be. It takes practice.