One key to writing a book that connects with readers is including characters they care about.
Or hate. It can be characters they hate. Just as long as the readers want to follow from the first page to the last.
Follow-worthy characters come from awesome descriptions, dialogue, goals you want to see them achieve, odds to beat, or devastating actions to their consequences. Another layer to add to your characters is the one that makes them; their backstory.
Don’t Info Dump
While you should avoid info dumping any part of your book, info dumping the backstory rates even higher. Why? Because it slows things down. This is especially true in the first three chapters of your book.
The beginning of the book is when you should hook the reader, not bore them with how the MC grew up in a small town, got high grades throughout school, moved to the city, found an apartment, then ended up the pawn in a serial killer’s game. Start, and stay, with the game! At least for the first few chapters.
The MC’s history is better sprinkled throughout the book, not dumped in the first chapter where it‘ll be forgotten by the time you need to know why it’s important she’s smart and grew up in a small town for the nail-biting climax.
Plan Or Perfect It
If you’re an organized writer who works out your plot and writes character outlines before getting stuck into a draft, crafting your backstory should be a cinch. Knowing where the story starts and ends and having in-depth profiles of each character is sure to help. Make the most of your organized-self and plan your backstory as part of your outline too.
If you don’t plan (waves to fellow pantsers), you won’t know the backstory until after you‘ve written the first draft. You can then perfect it on the next few (hundred) drafts, or reverse outline it and blend it in as if it was always part of your
evil plan story.
Show The Effects First
Before revealing any backstory, get into the habit of showing the effects of your backstory. A character who fears the dark, feels claustrophobic in crowds, can’t sleep without the white noise of a TV, and carries a jumper with them in summer will read as someone with quirks. But when their backstory of being caught in a snowstorm, buried for days in their car in the silent, dark, cold is revealed, all of those quirks make perfect sense. Backstory forms your characters. Use it to your advantage.
If you want backstory to earn its place, always make sure it’s relevant to your character’s actions. Don’t open the story with the MC swimming in the ocean if the backstory in chapter eight reveals watching Jaws as a child messed them up and they don’t like the beach (totally a legit reason, yeah? I’m asking for a friend…)
Also, just as anything that doesn’t contribute to the plot or characters should be cut, backstory should be relevant to either the plot—explaining events or needed for events to happen—or character—why they are the way they are, and/or their motivations.
While you could give your characters a backstory so devastating they can’t think of anything but their past, it’s more common (and realistic) that your backstory will be something that doesn’t occupy their thoughts every waking second. Instead, there will be things that trigger it. A smell could remind a parent of the cookies they baked with their kids every Sunday. The sight of a racing ambulance with blaring sirens could remind a driver of a car accident years before. Trigger the backstory using the five senses for a natural read.
Do Or Don’t Devastate
While devastating backstories up the tension, you can instill an interesting backstory without horror or loss. Think quirky mystery or good fortune leading the characters to where they are.
Some writers/readers love flashbacks, some loathe them. I’m a fan if they’re done right. This usually involves keeping it short, kicked off by a relevant trigger (avoid unnatural segue ways into a flashback), and because it shows something, such as motivation or answers to a question. The flashback needs to exist for a reason that drives the plot forward, not because you had a setting or description you wanted to use in your book.
If you’re not a fan of flashbacks or devoting paragraphs to the backstory, it’s also perfectly fine to work it into passing narrative instead. A past revealed in a line of dialogue or a one-sentence reference in a paragraph is sometimes all you need.
Play With The Delivery
While flashbacks or triggered memories are enough to venture into backstory territory, there are other ways too. Letters, texts, emails, voicemails, recordings suddenly unearthed, or diaries found in dusty boxes. Get creative with it and play with the way you deliver your backstory.
Balance It Out
Unless your backstory is a device you’re using, i.e. swapping between present day and the past every other chapter, keep the backstory to a minimum and balance it out. Don’t feature it in all chapters/scenes. After all, you’ve started the story where you have for a reason (right?).
Let the characters live in the present (or whatever timeline you’ve set) and venture into their past for the reasons listed above. That should leave you with fleshed out characters, clear motivations, hints of mysteries that resolve in a satisfying or devastating way (depending on the backstory), and a connection for the reader to grasp. All of which are the basics of a good backstory, and should make your book anything but basic.
— K.M. Allan