Showing Character by Revealing Backstory

Just as real people are shaped by past experiences, a character's fictional past (also known as backstory) influences how that character thinks, looks, and behaves in the present.

Suppose you are writing about a character who is terrified of snakes or unable to commit to a relationship, or is an obsessive workaholic. If you've done your homework and developed a backstory for that character, then you know exactly why she is the way she is. That snake phobia may have resulted when her brother put a pet boa constrictor in her bed when she was six. Maybe she can't commit because of how traumatic it was for her to watch her mother fall apart after her father abandoned the family. Or she may be a workaholic because she's afraid to slow down enough to grieve for her dead husband.

One of most frequent mistakes authors make is to lay out the character's backstory in the beginning of the novel. They go on and on, dumping the backstory in the reader's lap, telling how the character grew up in a broken home and how she was an alcoholic who inadvertently killed her child in a car accident, and, and, and . …

How much backstory your reader will tolerate is in direct proportion to how much forward momentum your novel has achieved.

It turns out that the reader probably doesn't need to know any of this. At least not yet. Backstory about characters readers don't yet care about is boring. So, first you have to make the reader care about the character, then you can layer in all the backstory you want.

So when it's time to tell the backstory, how do you do it? Not all at once. There are many different ways to convey backstory without writing a clunky backstory dump. Bits and pieces can be layered in as the story moves forward; the more important chunks of backstory can be told in flashbacks.

Backstory Layered in Internal Dialogue

Internal dialogue is an effective technique for slipping the reader information about a character's backstory. Here are a few examples:

  • There was Bruce. I hadn't seen him for months, not since his wife disappeared.

  • The tiny gravestones reminded Sarah of her own stillborn child; her husband had insisted that they whisk his little body away before she even had a chance to say good-bye.

  • Jane wanted to tell him she loved him. Really she did. But something about him reminded her of Daniel, and what had happened the last time she'd let down her guard.

  • In each of these examples, the viewpoint character conveys a little flash of memory, triggered by an object or event in the present. In the first little excerpt, for example, the trigger is seeing Bruce, and it reminds the narrator of his wife's disappearance.

    Backstory is often best layered in. So you might write just a quick reference, like these, to some event in the past. And then later add more detail in another quick flashback, and later add in even more until the full story emerges.

    Backstory Conveyed in Dialogue

    Another simple way to convey information about your characters' pasts is through spoken dialogue. Here are a few simple examples.

  • “Bruce! I haven't seen you in so long, not since the funeral.” I paused, wondering why on earth I'd blurted that out. But he didn't seem bothered. “I'm sorry. I know should have called.”

  • “Yes, I had a child,” Sarah said. “Once. She was two pounds, two ounces, and we named her Amanda.” Her vision blurred. “I never even got to hold her.”

  • “I just couldn't say it,” Jane said later to Miranda as they sat in Miranda's kitchen eating fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. “I kept thinking about Daniel, and how he betrayed me the day after I told him I loved him.”

  • When the opportunity arises in the story and dialogue like this feels natural, then it's an easy and straightforward way to convey backstory. But beware of overdoing it. For example:

    “As you know, my sister Louise was married to Bartie, of course that was a long time ago, when they lived over on Fisher Lane and the baby next door got kidnapped and the police questioned Louise and Bartie for the longest time. …”

    This dialogue sounds clumsy and contrived. Real people would never talk this way. Instead, it sounds like the author trying to shovel information into dialogue.

    Backstory Conveyed with Props

    Fill the fictional world your characters inhabit with props. Use them to suggest your characters' backstories. Consider a character's bedroom. Here are just a few items it might contain that will give you a chance to hint to the reader something about your character's past:

  • A wedding picture with the glass broken

  • A colorful but fraying afghan crocheted by the character's grandmother

  • A bulletin board with curling yellowed clippings tacked to it

  • A photo booth strip of pictures of the character mugging for the camera with a beautiful young woman

  • Bookshelves loaded with self-help books like When Am I Going to be Happy? and Women Who Love Too Much

  • A collection of guns in a wall-mounted display case with one of the guns missing

  • Each of these props suggests a backstory. When your character looks at that wedding picture, or adds another clipping to the bulletin board, you get a natural opportunity to convey backstory as the prop triggers a thought or a bit of dialogue about the past.

    Backstory Conveyed with a Flashback

    There will be big, important parts of the backstory that you may want to dramatize rather than relegate to internal or spoken dialogue. You can handle these by writing the scene as a flashback.

    Trigger the memory with something in the present, then segue into the past and write a scene within the scene, dramatizing the past event, staying in the viewpoint of the character who remembers. Then segue back and continue.

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