Writer to Writer: Character Backstories

Hi everyone!

Yes, it’s me. The same girl who swore she was going to start blogging regularly, and then took… oh, a year and a half off? 🤦🏻‍♀️ Sorry about that! I’ve missed blogging quite a bit—for whatever reason, I don’t enjoy journaling and can never force myself to do it, but blogs really become more of a conversation. I’m sure if I really forced myself to build up the habit I could… but I would much rather chat with everyone over here!

So, here’s my quick update: I’ve had a super quiet summer. I’m working on a revision for what’ll either be a Fall 2020 or Winter 2021 YA (currently called LORE) and I’ve been jumping in and out of my Spring 2020 release that I am SO excited to finally share with you guys. The Spring 2020 project just makes me happy and I’m looking forward to getting everyone’s take on it!

I’m headed off to my future sister-in-law’s bachelorette this weekend, but my newsletter should hit everyone’s inboxes on this Friday. Since I don’t have much news for said newsletter, I decided to make this newsletter pretty advice-heavy. The overwhelming request was for me to talk about how I go about developing characters—a topic I am ALWAYS happy to talk about! 😊

I get a monthly traffic report from this website, and while poking around the search results, I was pleasantly surprised to see that so many people are still finding some of my older posts with writing advice! (I also kind of cringe re-reading some of the posts because I relied so much on intuition and not as much on actual craft!) Sooz suggested that I might consider migrating some newsletter writing advice over here, to the blog, or at least breaking some of it off so I’m not crashing into everyone’s inboxes with monster-length emails every other month. 😅

I think it’s a great idea, both to show you guys the kind of content I include in my newsletters, and also to connect those newsletter subscribers to blog followers. If you totally hate this, please don’t hesitate to let me know as gently as possible in the comments! 😂

As I mentioned above, this month’s newsletter (if you’re looking at the archive, it’s the August 2019 How I Craft Characters + Writing Updates email) breaks down my four steps to developing characters, and I’m going to share my step #3 here. This step focuses specifically on how I think about character backstories and use them to reinforce my main character’s arc. That’s right—I don’t come up with backstories first! It’s important for me (and potentially you!) to know who the main character is before I can work my way back to figuring out what events made them.

The example I use over the four steps is Han Solo, so I’ll continue with that over here! The internet could always use a little more Solo.


How I Develop Character Backstories

I think a lot of writers (myself included) struggle with the balance of how much backstory to include, and how soon. In my first draft, what I call my "draft zero," I'm telling the story to myself, so I let myself off the hook and include the backstory wherever I think I need it. Once I have the full story down, I have a better sense of how that information can be better spread out so readers aren't wading through info dump after info dump. So my first piece of advice here is to cut yourself some slack in that first draft!

If you’re joining us from the newsletter, you already know a bit about my love story with Anatomy of a Story by John Truby. Sooz introduced this book to me a few years ago and it’s totally changed the way I think about writing and helped restore my confidence after a low period. I go into a little more detail about how I use a few of his steps in the newsletter, but the most relevant one to figuring out your character’s backstory is to think about your character’s weaknesses and needs. Truby (and me!) believes that characters should actually have two needs. These are:

  • Psychological: How they’re hurting themselves.

  • Moral: How they’re hurting others.

The character doesn’t become aware that he or she has those needs until the climax of the story. These needs are what the character must overcome over the course of the story in order to grow and either achieve their desire or attain some kind of resolution. They serve as the foundation of your character’s emotional arc. Some folks like to think about it in terms of The Lie the Character Believes. I use both! Though, admittedly, I tend to think of the “lie” as the excuse the main character gives himself or herself about why they’re not going after their desire/goal, and the inciting incident offers them a chance to go after it and break out of that holding pattern.

I recommend starting here and working backwards. Truby recommends starting your brainstorming at the very end of your character’s arc (what he calls the self-revelation—a little more on that in the newsletter). Something I’ve always instinctively done as a writer, even pre-Truby, was to make sure I knew who my characters are the start of the story and exactly how they’ve changed at the end of it. Having a firm grip on these things helps you craft a specific moment that sparked the needs in those characters.

I tend to think of backstory in a few different ways:

  • World backstory: Part of worldbuilding—what’s happened in that character’s world leading up to the moment the story begins. Because I start developing all of my stories by developing the cast of characters first, I can directly link fears/beliefs/opinions that they have to those events. This is the backstory I really struggle to pace out over my stories.

  • Flavor backstory: To me, this is those random details that get brought up in the story to round out a character or share a bit more of their personality. I try to include unique/distinctive events to make the character pop. (See: Miracle Bus Boy in TDM) What matters most to the readers is who the character is RIGHT NOW and who they’ll become, so think of this like adding a pinch of salt to really draw out your character’s essence.

  • Emotional arc backstory: What we’re going to talk about now—the foundation of the character’s needs.

When it comes to your main character’s backstory, I almost always recommend teasing it out over the course of the story rather than revealing it all upfront. This adds in another layer of tension and mystery, and it allows your readers to get to know the present-day character and get to like them first. The best example of this in my work is probably the reveal of what happened with Ruby’s parents in TDM. I love a big reveal! (Side note: it was super interesting to compare the impact of revealing this same information early in the TDM film vs the way I withheld it in the book!)

A sympathetic/tragic backstory is a great and very popular way to get an audience on your character's side, though it can start to feel cheap or like misery tourism if every single character in your book has one. A backstory doesn’t have to be incredibly tragic to have an impact on readers. Your goal as a writer is to get the reader to connect on an emotional level with your characters, which means tapping into the human experience. While we might not have experienced, say, mental or physical torture or loved ones being murdered, we all experience moments of disappointment, regret, humiliation, loneliness, or feeling forgotten. Even quieter instances of these emotions can still be powerful points of connection. Compare: the shame/regret of blaming yourself for someone’s death vs the shame/regret of blaming yourself for a loved one missing out on a dream.

That said, I do LOVE a big emotional backstory—they best suit the stories I’m trying to tell. If I were writing a contemporary romance, for example, I would probably scale the backstory back a bit.

In any case, this emotional backstory moment is something I’ve always done instinctively as a writer. I used to call it the childhood trauma, thanks to this iconic-to-me Buffy scene, but I now prefer Truby's term for it, which is the ghost. One thing to remember: your character knows that this event changed their life's trajectory and beliefs, but they might not realize (or be willing to accept) to what extent. I consider this to be the most important backstory I include in my book.

What's interesting is that we don't actually know what Han's ghost is for the entire original trilogy--we get hints of it and can draw our own conclusions. While I know everyone didn't love Solo, I find it really interesting because the whole movie effectively functions as Han's ghost! It completely explains the origins of both his psychological and moral needs.

Here is how I would break it down for our favorite scoundrel:


Han's psychological need in A New Hope: To believe that he can be part of something bigger/more meaningful.

In Solo: We see a young Han grow incredibly disillusioned in his time serving the Empire. On a very basic level, they strip him of his identity and reduce him and the recruits to identification numbers. But we also see them fighting pointless, losing battles that seem to achieve nothing. Later, we also see that his partnership with Beckett and his team is anything but.

Han's moral need in A New Hope: To stop being so self-interested and pushing others away through his cynicism and lack of trust

In Solo: I consider Qi'ra's betrayal/double-cross to be the true origin of Han's hardened cynicism. If nothing else, it marked the demise of his idealism. Reality didn't so much as check him as it body-slammed him. Beckett also plays a role in this, and warns Han, "I trust no one. Assume everyone will betray you and you will never be disappointed."


After watching Solo, I had the same feeling about Han as I had about Anakin after watching Revenge of the Sith. While you still see that character change over the course of the films, having this backstory adds another, deeper layer that really increases the feeling of triumph and tragedy.

A truly impactful character arc sees a character struggle with their needs as they’re forced to make decisions and moral judgment calls—these moments are how you show readers how your character is or isn’t growing. What’s ultimately the most satisfying to readers/views isn’t necessarily that the character achieved their objective or stated goal, but the changes they undergo in the struggle to get that treasure/destroy that ship/find that magical doo-dad.

Han makes the right moral call at the end of A New Hope, which allows us to see how much he’s grown/how much he’s changed. The inverse is true of Anakin and it’s just as compelling, albeit more tragic: he makes the wrong moral call, but we still see how much he’s changed from the more innocent Anakin we both knew. As I was saying before, we don’t necessarily need Solo or Revenge of the Sith to still feel the impact of Han’s choice to come back in A New Hope, or, in the continuation of Anakin’s arc, Vader’s choice to save Luke at the end of Return of the Jedi, but, man, does the emotional arc backstory help those moments hit harder. (In fact, the first time I watched Return of the Jedi after Revenge of the Sith, I actually cried at the moment Vader saved Luke!)

I think that about covers it! If you guys have any questions about this method, please feel free to leave ‘em in the comments, along with any other writing topics you’d like me to cover. Otherwise, make sure you’re subscribed to my newsletter for more strategies on building out your characters!