Knowing your characters’ backstories is necessary to shaping them and your story. If you know how they’ve reacted to conflict in the past, you can predict how they might react to other conflicts you throw at them. But showing their backstories can sometimes be a tricky business – what do you reveal and when and how?
Don’t Front-Load the Backstory
You know everything about your character’s backstory and how they’ve become the person they are, but your reader doesn’t know yet. Info-dumping the entire backstory in the first five pages so the reader knows ALL going forward? Content overload. That’s way too much too soon. You don’t need to tell all the backstory that you’ve constructed for this character and the reader doesn’t need that much information after they’ve just met this character for the first time. After all, you don’t blurt out your life story right after you’ve finished shaking someone’s hand and saying “nice to meet you.” Let the reader get to know the characters as you would a new friend.
Don’t Back-Load the Backstory Either
I recently read a romance that ended on a cliffhanger. This cliffhanger was predicated on the reveal of information about the main character’s family, which occurred only a few chapters earlier. There was no mention of this entirely new character who was introduced, and no hint of this family secret at any point earlier in the story.
If there had been an indication that there was something coming later that could destabilize the foundation of the story (or an indication that there was actually going to be a cliffhanger – but that’s a rant for another day), then there would have been a delicious sense of anticipation that something monumental was going to occur or that our heroine had something to fear. Instead, it was a missed opportunity to demonstrate how this new character’s presence altered the family dynamic that had already been well established, how our protagonist felt and how far she was willing to go to protect the character from nefarious forces, and how it might affect the relationship with her love interest.
Revealing a ton of backstory close to the end after the reader already think they know everything they need to know really throws off the equilibrium already developed, as does introducing a new element when things are supposed to be wrapping up.
The Organic Reveal
Not all backstory should be shared, and not all of it should come out all at once. You want it to come out organically, in dribs and drabs, whether
- in conversations, with a sprinkling of key info about their past that comes up naturally, whether they intend to or not, and with tone (i.e. shaky voice, wistful expression);
- in flashbacks;
- in actions: averting their eyes, flinching, blushing, slamming the laptop shut quickly, etc.;
- in setting: pictures, mementos, a yellowed letter peeking out of a book.
These subtle touches provide depth of character and intrigue the reader. And the reveal of how these moments in their past come to bear on the present conflict in the story is so much more satisfying when the layers are peeled back slowly rather than tearing through them all at once.
It’s also worth considering who’s receiving the information and if that person is getting it. Do they need a clue-by-four to the face to pick up on the hints? Watching that person put the clues together and realize how backstory affects the other character’s actions allows the reader to more easily relate to them and understand their frustrations.
Understanding how your characters’ backstories and internal conflicts resulting from them affect the external conflicts that you expose them to during the course of the story will help you to write a rich emotional experience for your characters and for your readers. By deploying backstory effectively – at the right time and place in the story – you deepen and develop your characters and make them realistic and relatable.