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The Backstory — The Difference Between Your Characters Living or Dying

What makes us keep turning the pages of a book or story?  The plot, dialogue, pace and the way in which the writer crafts those elements certainly make a story work or fall apart.  But the backstory — now that’s where the good stuff is.

As I write my novel, I’ve become increasingly aware of that.  Not only is a character’s backstory crucial but it may be the most important aspect of whether a reader will see my novel to the end or stop reading after a few chapters.

Why?  I’ve heard it time and time again from people that have read my Novel-in-Progress (henceforth, will be referred to as my NIP).  What’s my NIP missing more than anything?  My protagonist’s story–why she does what she does.  Her motivation for trying to do what she’s trying to do.  It’s taken me some time to figure that out, but I think I’m getting it.

Here’s what I heard about my novel in the beginning:

  • Love the character!  She’s so funny!  The writing is great!
  • Your scenes are hilarious.  Have you considered comedy writing?
  • I can’t wait to see what happens next!

After submitting more chapters to all of the dear people whom I’ve trusted to give me feedback (i.e., brutal honesty), I began hearing a theme:

  • Why does she keep doing this?
  • There’s something more to her, some deeper issue at work, when are you going to show us that?

And finally,

  • Your first chapter sounds more like a third or fourth chapter — shouldn’t I know more about her before this happens?
  • This would make a great series about the escapades of your character, but I don’t see this chapter moving your book forward…


So I wrote, rewrote, took some things out, put some back in and switched scenes around.  What I’m finding is I’m beginning to get a bit impatient with her myself.  If I am, I know my reader will be.

How I’m Incorporating the Backstory

I took the advice from my trusted sources (one being a great instructor from Gotham Writers’ Group) and wrote a brand new chapter introducing my character.  I reveal much about her through inner dialogue which I think is great tool.  It can:

  • Establish if a character is confident or insecure
  • Give readers a clue about her/his physical appearance
  • Let the readers into her/his mind and how she perceives others

Since my novel is in first-person, the reader (I hope) feels an instant connection to her.  It’s as if you’re reading her diary, but narrating her backstory is a bit more difficult this way.

At first, I was using small flashbacks — she’d be sitting in traffic and remember something or she’d hear a song that would remind her of something.  My readers wanted to know more about it — it didn’t give them enough information so I’m now creating entire chapters of those flashbacks.

In doing so, I’ve had to resort to the dreaded outline.  Yes, it’s more work, but it’s helping me as well as my character.  I’m posting up on a board (on little notecards), Chapter One — this scene; Chapter Two — Flashback, etc., etc., ad nauseam.

I never thought I’d have to write this way.  Never have in the past, but I’m only a third of the way through and the task of finishing is beginning to seem a bit more manageable now.

Most of my readers love my character.  One reader despised her, focusing far more on her as a person than the actual writing.  After getting over the sensitivity of someone hating what I thought was a very lovable character, I realized just what a compliment she gave me.

Love a character or hate her/him — as long as it provokes a strong feeling, I’ll take it. Apathy, indifference and not giving a crap about what happens to her — that will surely kill her.


How do you create a character’s backstory?  Leave a comment and let me know.  Happy writing!

About Brigitte



2 thoughts on “The Backstory — The Difference Between Your Characters Living or Dying

  1. I agree that a strong response to your character is more important than a necessarily positive response from readers. Backstory is one of my biggest stumbling blocks. Now that I’ve written several stories, of varying lengths, I see a definite theme in my work – I write about why people react the way they do to a crisis, more than how. I have way too much backstory sometimes and my critique group buddies give me comments like “this is all very interesting, but is she going to kick the bum out or not?” Backstory is important but it can slow down the pacing too.

    Posted by Elizabeth | February 1, 2012, 11:00 am
    • Elizabeth,
      Thanks so much for stopping by and your insight! You are right about backstory can slow down the pace; I think it’s finding the perfect balance. Again, thanks and hope you’ll stop by again!

      Posted by Brigitte | February 1, 2012, 2:54 pm

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the mood or character of a place, situation, or piece of music:
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