Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Despite being a necessary and enjoyable part of most narratives, backstory is a bit of a storytelling anomaly. The more complex or involving a story the author is telling, the more time they’re forced to spend outside it. Readers want to know where fascinating characters came from, and that means exploring events you may never have imagined.
In this article, I’ll be exploring how much backstory is appropriate for your book, before offering up one simple tip to writing a believable backstory that’s so good it’ll add to the realism of your entire novel.
How much backstory do you need?
The amount of backstory you need correlates with the complexity of your story. Observe the following story:
Once upon a time there was a princess. She was captured by a dragon. Her father the king offered a lot of treasure to anyone who would rescue her. A prince tried to rescue her but couldn’t. He asked a wizard for help. The wizard used a spell that made him invisible, then he was able to slay the dragon and save the princess. The prince and princess got married afterwards. The End.
With a story like this the reader requires zero backstory. Where did the dragon come from? Why would he kidnap a princess? Who cares? The above story lacks the two factors that make backstory a must: complexity and immersion.There are two elements of a story that depend on backstory: complexity and immersion.Click To Tweet
To understand why complexity requires you to provide backstory you have to acknowledge that the reader is being asked to do something: they’re being asked to care about and understand characters and situations. The more complex a story, the more is being asked of the reader.
If you want a reader to care about a character over the course of the book then you need to explain who they are and where they came from. ‘Once upon a time there was a princess’ asks almost nothing of the reader. It hinges on story-telling archetypes we instantly recognize. In fact, nothing in the above story requires the reader to care or understand. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the opening line of George Orwell’s 1984:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
How and why are the clocks striking thirteen? It’s a subtly uncanny idea, suggesting not just a different world but one close enough to our own to feel disturbing. The book is full of such moments, and Orwell pays for the reader’s high workload by explaining the wars and government upheaval that have led to this unfamiliar world. There’s even a short booklet at the end of the story explaining the origin and intentions behind the country’s invented language.
Likewise, in J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series, the reader is asked to care and understand new species, a new world and new cultures, and Tolkien pays them back with page after page of family trees, geography and history.
If judged solely on complexity, the answer to ‘how much backstory should I include?’ would be ‘enough to pay for the reader’s efforts’, however you also need to consider immersion.
Immersion is when the reader’s suspension of disbelief is at its strongest. Part of them believes in the world and characters of your story, so why wouldn’t they expect to know more? When you get someone to care about characters enough, they begin to believe – on an emotional level – that they’re real people. The unspoken request isn’t ‘invent more about these characters’, it’s ‘tell me more about these people’.
Immersion works alongside complexity; now you’re not just asking your reader to do something, you’re asking them to do something they enjoy. But while they may enjoy caring about your characters, they still expect that eventually they’ll find out how they came to be. Waiting for this information is what makes a character feel enigmatic, but it still needs to feel like the backstory is on its way. The answer to ‘how much backstory should I include?’ is therefore ‘as little as readers will accept at any given moment’.
Relevant backstory is a finite resource, so you need to give readers just enough to keep their interest going. This is why mysterious villains’ origins are usually revealed towards the end of a novel. The writer waits until the last minute to use up this resource, teasing just enough along the way to keep the reader engaged.
Make sure to remember that you are giving as little as readers will accept. You can’t withhold the backstory of all characters and all events without the reader feeling like they’re getting nothing from you.
A good way to do this is to list each character, feature and event that makes up your story. Once you’ve done this, write down every major piece of backstory you’re going to reveal for each and rate them on interest. This will allow you to ration them throughout the story, giving your reader just enough to justify their effort. Also, because you now have these numbers for every subject, you can compensate for lulls in one subject’s backstory with revelations in another.
You can see this at play in Anthony McGowan’s Hellbent, in which the main character is sent to Hell. He protests his innocence, and yet there are a few early hints that he’s not telling the whole truth. In the middle of the book, a demon suggests he knows why he’s damned, something that makes the reader significantly more suspicious of the protagonist, and near the end it’s revealed that he was involved in the bullying of a classmate that had tragic consequences.
But if that’s the quantity of backstory you should use, what about the quality? How can you make sure the backstory you give your readers is believable and satisfying? As with dragon slaying, the answer lies with a wizard.
The sex lives of wizards
In 2007, J.K. Rowling stated that Dumbledore, from her hugely popular Harry Potter series, was gay. It wasn’t a big announcement, it was a casual answer to a fan’s question about whether the character had ever been in love.
Many people accused Rowling of trying to change her stories after publication. In fact what Rowling did was reveal her in-depth knowledge of the character’s unrevealed backstory.
Unrevealed backstory is the information you know about your characters that you never specifically intend to tell the reader. And, here’s the big tip that will help your writing:
60% of your character’s backstory should be unrevealed.
By that I don’t mean that you should invent a backstory and then withhold parts of it. I mean that you need to know more about your characters than the reader does. If readers spend long enough with a character then it’s expected that some backstory will be revealed naturally, as anyone will occasionally reference their past. Reader’s love that, it helps explain how a character became the person they are, but you need to go deeper.60% of your character’s backstory should be unrevealed; there for you, not the reader.Click To Tweet
Start by asking yourself how your character went from a baby to the person the reader sees. No-one is created in their entirety by a single incident. What were the most important relationships of their life? How did they find school? What books and films did they enjoy, hate or grow out of?
Write down as much as you can about your character’s life prior to their appearance in the story. Once you decide on these minor details, it’s impossible to stop their influence. You’ll know exactly how a character developed and who they were in the past. When you write from this position then you meet the expectations of ‘tell me more about these people’.
Both your backstory and all your character’s interactions will have the reference of your unrevealed backstory, creating a core truth to your character. And once you really know where a character came from, you’ll write little references and moments that ring true.The more you know about a character, the more truth you’ll bring to even their smallest moments.Click To Tweet
Of course Dumbledore’s sexuality is only a very small part of his unrevealed backstory, but it rings true with his character. Dumbledore’s philosophy and temperament make complete sense for someone who has undergone a courageous journey to acknowledge his sexuality and understand the value and consequences of that honesty.
When Lupin the werewolf wants to marry Tonks the witch, Professor McGonagall ends the debate on whether their relationship is acceptable by invoking Dumbledore, who would have just been happy ‘to think that there was a little more love in the world’. The reader doesn’t know that Dumbledore’s own love would have been questioned, and yet because Rowling has always known this, the statement rings true.
Such moments are the result of what must be a varied and eventful backstory, but the reason Dumbledore is such a resonant, complete character is that Rowling understands so much about who he is and where that comes from.
The value of backstory
Take 60% as a minimum of unrevealed backstory, and try to decide on as much of your character’s life as possible. The more backstory you know the more realistic the character will be, and the more realistic the 40% you actually share will feel.
Believability lies in seemingly inconsequential details, and it’s something you can’t fake. It may be a lot of work inventing a detailed backstory for your characters and world but it will pay off in hundreds of little ways.Nail Your Character’s Backstory With This One Simple TipClick To Tweet
For more on developing a realistic and tangible character, have a look at our article 5 Things You Need To Know Right Now About Character Development and Don’t Let Fake Minor Characters Ruin Your Story. Or, if you’re ready to think about the backstory of your world, try You’re Making A Mistake In Your World Building: Here’s How To Fix It and Speculative Fiction World-building Techniques You Need To Know. Finally, for communicating details about your character’s past, see The 4 Decisions That Will Help You Write An Amazing Flashback.
Do you agree with Rowling’s post-publication behavior, or think she’s just meddling? Which characters do you wish you knew more about? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.