Every character and every world in every story has history. It’s part of the richness that makes your characters come alive.
But how do you write backstory without overloading your reader?
Write Better Backstory Without Overloading Your Reader
In my experience, early drafts tend to overshare on backstories, giving the reader every detail of each character’s history, the first time the character is introduced. But this can seriously disrupt your story’s flow, bore readers and even cause confusion if you’re giving information that isn’t relevant.
As I work my way through my draft for a backstory check, I use three questions to keep backstory tight and supportive of the overall plot arc:
1. Does my reader need to know this?
Say your character has a scar on her knee from that time when she fell out of a tree when she was 10. It’s super that you know your character so well. But does your reader need to know about it?
Probably not. Keep backstory lean by deleting pieces like this, then review the section again to see if readers can understand the story without it.
2. Does my reader need to know this NOW?
My personal greatest pitfall is that once I start sharing backstory, I just can’t stop. Early drafts are full of heavy paragraphs of backstory, when really all I meant to include was one pertinent detail.
When I go back to edit, this question is my surgeon’s knife, cutting away all that is not necessary. I set the trimmed pieces aside in a separate document so I can add them to other parts of the manuscript as needed.
3. How can I show instead of tell?
Even with backstory, the rule “show, don't tell” still applies.
No matter where you put backstory, avoid long explanatory paragraphs. Instead, find ways to show the critical details.
For example, if you need readers to know your character is a seasoned killer, instead of just having the character say so, let your readers observe the worn place of your character’s sword and the authoritative way s/he wields it without hesitation.
Backstories are a critical part of developing engaging characters. The only thing more important is how you deliver it—the way you share a backstory can bring your characters to life or prompt a reader to put your book down. With these three questions as a guide, you can ensure that backstory serves as a foundation for your plot, not dead weight.
How do you share your characters’ backstories?
Write down the backstory for a character you created (or re-read it if you've already written it down). How much of this backstory does your reader really need to understand the plot? Share your findings in the comments!