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:
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: