Character Development: Step 5 Character Backstory

“It's being here now that's important. There's no past and there's no future. Time is a very misleading thing. All there is ever, is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can't relive it; and we can hope for the future, but we don't know if there is one.”
― George Harrison

Wow! I can't believe we made it to the end of this series.  I'm a couple of days late with this article post, but it's here. I won't lie, it's been hard coming up with something to say about creating a believable backstory for characters because I honestly don't know what my process is for doing it.

One of the problems with being an organic writer is I don't plan my stories or create character charts... I just live with them in my head and listen to their stories. Then I try to write them down as best I can.  But, when I go back and read my work, I always find a hidden bit of information about how and why my main characters are the way they are.  I tend to find their backstory nestled between their present experiences and their future hopes. How does that BS get in there? BTW, BS stands for backstory...no pun intended or maybe it is; I don't know, yet.

I thought the best way to tackle this article was with a Q & A format.  I took the top five questions I had about BS and decided to answer them for myself after some serious self-reflection and a little research.

What is a character backstory?  
Character backstory is the snippets of information about a characters past used to explain why the character is so messed up about something in the present.  The BS isn't an excuse for bad or inappropriate behavior, but rather an explanation given to the reader to provide insight and clarity about a character's motivation.

Does the backstory have to begin in childhood? 
The backstory can begin anywhere in the character's life before the present moment. If you're writing about a child, there won't be much backstory and more than likely, the BS and the story will somehow intersect at some point because of the limited time.  If you're writing from an  middle-aged adult perspective, the backstory can be from early college or early adulthood.  The older the character, the more flexibility you have in writing the backstory.

What's the best way to give the backstory for the character?
 Avoid the info-dump in most cases.  The best way to feed the backstory to the reader is in small increments.  You don't want the BS to take over your actual story.  When the character is dealing with some issue in their present life, provide a little backstory to give insight about why the character is struggling with the issue. 
Example:
Daniel paced the length of the dingy, smoke-filled room enough times to earn the 13.1 oval sticker for the back of his Range Rover; although hell would freeze over before he'd ever placed such a tacky sticker on his luxury SUV.  His mother's rusty station-wagon was covered in bumper stickers and magnets. She would pull in front of the private school Daniel was attending on scholarship, with her loud music pouring from the windows along with the acrid stench of cigarette smoke.  He hated stickers on cars and he hated the fact he'd been lured into this god-forsaken neighborhood, in this goddamn house, waiting in this rust-colored, smoky room for the bastard sister he never knew his slack ass mother had given birth to.

The BS about his mother and how embarrassed he was of her goes a long way to explain his anger and frustration as he is forced to acknowledge his obvious humble beginnings. Can the passage stand without the bit of backstory? Of course it can, but would the reader be empathetic toward Daniel, or will they think him an uppity, neglectful son?

How much backstory is needed?
Your character's backstory is only needed to provide the reader with deeper insight and understanding into the why and how of your character in their present experiences.  The BS is in the past, allow your reader to glimpse a little and then leave most of your character's past experiences where they belong. Don't allow the backstory to overtake the story you're telling.  You need enough of a backstory to effectively fill your character out. 

I like to think of my character in terms of a 3-D body.  The backstory is like the butt of the body.  I'm not really partial to large hindparts, I like a nicely proportioned butt. Not flat and/or sagging, but not huge and jiggling either.  The butt needs to be toned, like the character does squats and walks, a lot. It looks good in jeans, pants, skirts, and naked... Wait, I think I went off on a tangent.  I'm back.  The backstory needs to look good naked.

Should I write the character's backstory before I write the main story? 
This question is subjective.  As I mentioned before, I'm an organic writer which means I don't plan my writing. I just sit down and write and whatever comes out is what I work with.  It would be impossible for me to write a character backstory before I write the story because I don't even know what the main story is going to be about. However; if you are a planner and you outline your story and flesh out your characters before you pen your first paragraph, you may also at that time write the backstory and then use what you need from it as you write the main story.  Kind of like doing research and finding quotes to support your ideas and then using them as you need them.
 
Well... that's it.  I have come to the end of this 5-part series on developing characters that will have your readers worrying about them as they shop for grocery.  I can honestly say I've learned a lot from researching and thinking about my own character development process; it's been fun to share it with others. 

If you have tips and secrets to character development, please leave them in the comments.  We learn more as we teach others what we know.

Remember, writing is a journey and every so often, the universe provides stepping stones to make the journey easier.  Enjoy the trip and remember to keep writing and stay enchanted.
Ella 🙏


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