It took me seventeen rewrites (and one editor) before this dawned on me:
The MAIN reason my readers didn't care about my story - was because my main character had a weak backstory.
Now, I could tell you everything about him...
- The shape of his face
- His most powerful values
- How much money he had in his pocket
But without a backstory, this character was dragging down the entire story. Let me show you how to fix this problem:
Why Do You Need a Powerful Backstory for Your Characters?
Darth Vader and Harry Potter.
What do they have in common? Excellent backstories.
Harry Potter’s backstory is the driving force behind most of his actions. Without Voldemort, Harry Potter is nothing more than “just another wizard whose life is perfectly normal.”
On the other side of the Force…
Darth Vader’s backstory evolves him from a stereotypical “Shadow/Dark Lord” archetype… into a much more complicated, compelling character.
A powerful backstory is critical for two reasons:
#1 - It pulls your character off the pages, and makes them feel alive...
Many writers (myself included) suffer from “Born on Page One” Syndrome.
That is - when you write a character who feels like they did not exist before page one.
Characters with backstory feel like real people who existed before the story. They had rich, full lives - or maybe desperate, empty ones.
They have loved, lost, lusted, needed, found, gained, and lost again... many times over.
With a backstory, you can turn any two-dimensional cutout into a full, well-rounded, memorable person your readers will empathize with.
Speaking of empathy...
#2 - You can use backstory to control your readers’ empathy for your characters.
Backstory is a tool to control the reader’s perception of your characters.
For example: if you want to create empathy for your Hero, you can use backstory to show how they once struggled and lost their only son, despite fighting tooth and claw for to save his life.
Or, if you want to make your readers hate a character: do the opposite.
Take Joffrey Baratheon, from A Song of Ice and Fire. We hate him for many reasons, but we are completely robbed of empathy for him because:
- Everything was handed to him (probably on a literal silver platter)
- His mother lets him do whatever he wants. He never has to fight.
- He’s not even the real heir to the throne
So, how do you write the perfect backstory for your character and your story?
3 Crucial Questions to Ask for a Perfect Character Backstory
“How much backstory should I write? Are we talking … from birth up until the story starts?”
You don’t need a 3,000-page biography of your character. Instead, before you write your backstory, ask yourself these three questions:
1. What is their “defining event?”
A defining moment is a unique, emotional event that made a huge impact on your character. It probably made them who they are.
The first ten minutes of any Spiderman movie is usually all about his defining moments:
- Nerdy, intelligent high-schooler gets bitten by radioactive spider, gains superpowers
- His Uncle gets killed by a robber, prompting Spiderman’s to take on a new life motto…
“With great power comes great responsibility.”
Your character’s defining events don’t have to be so obvious. You don’t even have to explicitly show a defining moment in your story (we’ll get to that in Question #3).
For now, I suggest looking back at your main character.
- What made them adopt their peculiar and most powerful traits?
- Is your protagonist a heartless bastard because nobody cared that his wife died?
- Is your villain actually a wannabe superhero who was never taken seriously?
Depending on the length of your story, your character may have one (short story), or a string of defining moments (novel) that made them who they are.
2. What details are relevant to your story?
Generally speaking, you don’t want to introduce backstory unless it does one of these things:
- Shows your character’s traits, ideals, or motives
- Adds tension to the plot… without robbing focus from the central conflict
- Creates atmosphere, humor, or builds on the main theme
In Episodes 4, 5, and 6, we don’t need to know that Darth Vader harbors a secret, undying hate for Gonk droids.
Why? Because it’s irrelevant (and also I made it up).
This backstory detail would distract us from Vader’s main motives - to get the Death Star plans, to convert his Son to the Darkside, and to further solidify his control over the galaxy.
So, when you are writing your character’s backstory, try to think what you want your story to be about.
- What do you want this character to look like?
- What does your character want more than anything? What part of their past prevents them from attaining this goal?
- What are the big questions you want to answer? (This could literally be anything from the deepest philosophical questions, to “what happens if two giant robots punch each other in the gearbox?”)
Your goal here is to look for black chunks of coal that you can use later to fuel conflict in your story.
Keyword: later. This is the final secret to great backstory...
3. How can you show “the tip of the Iceberg?”
Recently I’ve been reading (and writing about) one of my new favorite authors, Ernest Hemingway.
Actually, I just wrote a post on Hemingway a few weeks ago, if you’re interested in how to steal Hemingway's 7 dialogue tricks.
He has a “Theory of Omission.” It’s also called the Iceberg Theory.
It works like this:
Only reveal the tip of the iceberg. Your readers will only see what is above water. The knowledge that you have about your character should act as the bulk of the iceberg, unseen and hidden below the water.
By showing only the important elements, by showing just the tip of the Iceberg, you accomplish two things:
- Youkeep the emotional punch of the backstory… by not “over explaining” it. It’s kind of like when you have to explain a joke… and the humor falls flat.
- You prove that there is depth to your character… without slowing down the tension, or slapping your readers with a 3000-page brick.
Reveal Subtle - Yet Powerful - Pieces of Backstory.
Let your readers to wonder. Let them create their own stories about your character.
How many times have you wondered (before the prequels stole his mystique): what are some dark, evil moments in Darth Vader’s past that we never hear about? Why do all the other commanders seem to fear him, yet show such disdain for his “religion?”
By sharing just the tip of the Iceberg, you get to highlight what makes your character truly interesting and unique… without diluting the character with too many details.
Most professional writers create immense amounts of backstory for their characters (even if they never write it out). But they also know to hold most of it back.
Use These Tips to Write Better Backstories for Your Characters
In all writing, immersion is key.
With these backstory tips, you will be able to create more empathetic characters that feel real and alive.
You will be able to pull more readers into your stories, and - with the Iceberg Theory - you will keep them immersed without giving too much away.
Backstory Writing Prompt
Write a full-page (or 500 words) of backstory for this picture.
Make sure to include his defining event. What made him into the man he is today?
Share it here if you’re feeling brave!
Related Post: 5 Ways You're Writing Dialogue WRONG