Have you ever submitted something to your critique group and heard this: NO, that’s backstory, no backstory, it stops your action dead! You should never use backstory!


When backstory is handled properly, it not only gives depth to your characters and your plot, but backstory can also propel your story forward. In other words, if you don’t know where your characters have been, you will have a hard time moving them to where they need to be. You will always know more about your characters’ backstories than your readers, but the more you know, the more believable your characters will be to your audience. The trick is to dribble the backstory in a little at a time rather than serve it up in chunks.

Think about yourself and how you act and react in certain situations. Every action and reaction you have stems from a past experience, whether it was a good or bad experience. Your personal history dictates your actions.

Look at this section:

“Lucian averted his gaze from the wall-hangings as he passed his desk and the opulent chair by the hearth. In spite of Catarina’s edict, he went to the casement and pushed aside the heavy drapes to open the window over her sprawling gardens.

A prison, no matter how finely furnished, was still a prison. Although he reviled Catarina’s house, he had not tried to escape again. He had learned to fear his sister after his first failed attempt to leave her.

The wide window-seat accommodated him comfortably, but his humor didn’t improve with the cold breeze.”

There is the action of Lucian averting his gaze as he passes his desk, he opens the window, then he is thinking. I’ve italicized the backstory, and then I bring my character back to his present circumstances. I didn’t go into a long memory/dream sequence as to how he escaped and was brought back to Catarina’s house. There is no need for all that information, especially in the first chapter. I know what happened, but at this point, all my reader needs to know is why Lucian just doesn’t get up, pack his bags, and get out if he’s so unhappy at his sister’s house.

Do you recall when I posted about scene/sequel? There was a little section in scene/sequel where the sequence went like this: goal, conflict, disaster, emotion, thought, decision, action. Your character’s thoughts are where you can often work in a tidbit of backstory.

Think about how you make decisions. You always have a goal and try to anticipate any problems (conflicts), and you think about your decision before you act. During this evaluation process, you almost always reflect on past behavior, either your own actions or those of someone else, so you can anticipate any problems. In other words, you look at your own backstory, however briefly, before you plunge ahead. Your characters should go through the same process in what I call a “Readers’ Digest Condensed” version of events. Don’t force your readers to slog through paragraphs or pages of backstory, but toss them a tidbit now and then so they can see the depth of your character.

It’s not important that you divulge everything in the first chapter.  Give it time, find a theme for your character and what portion of their backstory is the most important to your novel. Then dribble it out to your audience in bits and pieces to sustain interest in that character.

Using my example, the following questions will pop into my reader’s mind (or at least, I hope they do!): How did Lucian escape the first time? Why did he fail? Why won’t his sister let him leave? Why is he scared of her?

Those questions will take my reader to the next paragraph, and if I do the job well, to the next chapter. Think of it as building a house, and your characters’ backstories are the solid foundation upon which you build. Your reader doesn’t want to know everything about your characters in the first chapter. They want to experience the same joy of discovery that you experienced as you came to know your characters. If your audience genuinely likes your characters, they will go to the effort to find out more about them.

For some more great articles on backstory and how to incorporate it into your novel, see some of these links:

Backstory Techniques by Cheryl Wright

How to Write Character Backstory: Three Ways to Flesh Out Your Characters by Rhonda Leigh Jones

The Importance of Backstory by Linda Rohrbough

What Backstory Can Do for Your Story by Jessica Morrell

Copyright 2009 Teresa Frohock


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2 Responses to backstory

  1. jenniferneri says:

    Teresa, I love reading your posts about how you work!
    Backstory can be tough for me. I wrote so much with firs novel (well, it is a learning experience) and had to dwindle it away. We must care about the characters to want to know them and their history. I like what you did in that paragraph.

    • Teresa says:

      I think backstory is one of the hardest tricks to pull off when writing a novel. How much is too much? I’m finding it depends on the novel.

      Also, I’ve come to find that a little bit of mystery can make a character more tanatalizing. I liked the character Lestat from Anne Rice’s novels much better in Interview with a Vampire than in the novel Lestat. Lestat told too much about the character, while in Interview Lestat teased me.

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