Most books begin at the moment a character's life is about to change, but that doesn't mean their lives (even though fictional) begin at the opening of chapter 1. The question is how to write a backstory that includes the key events that shaped the character backstory without slowing down the story plot with info dumps or unnecessary details.
Today we welcome guest writer Iris Marsh who shares an interesting technique for capturing the perfect backstory balance. Welcome, Iris!
You’ve created your story and your characters, and you know exactly what happened in their pasts to make them the way they are now. But whenever you add those important bits of backstory, do you struggle to make it interesting enough to hold the attention of readers without slowing down your story?
You're not alone. Many writers struggle with how and when to incorporate backstory. I know I did (and sometimes still do).
Often, backstory is simply told to the reader in the opening or a prologue; this slows down the pace and comes across as a massive info dump. In those instances, the reader might decide to put the book down.
And that’s not what you want. But before you throw out backstory altogether, let’s look at one way to reveal well-developed backstory in a more organic way: through the setting.
What is backstory?
Backstory is history or background information that impacts a character's present circumstances or choices. It includes formative events, and any complex character will have a rich backstory that influences the decisions they make.
You can think of it as a kind of personal history, but you want to limit the details to the relevant backstory—the part that will enhance the story arc.
Why writing effective backstory matters
Ultimately, you need to use some backstory in your story, but weak backstory slows the plot.
Compelling backstory adds depth to your characters—it makes each one feel like a real person. So, let’s review a few reasons why you should care about nailing backstory in your manuscript.
- It enhances characterization—makes for more believable characters.
- It raises the stakes—makes readers care about how a character wins or loses.
- It deepens your story world—makes the story feel more like real life.
Use setting to improve your backstory
One way to improve your backstory is to use setting to help bring the character to life. First, let’s review for a moment what elements usually make up setting:
- Location: This could be broad, like a region or city, or specific, such as a house or a room.
- Time: This could be the time period, like in historical fiction, time of day, time of the year, and so on.
- Context: culture, space, or available objects all impact people’s choices and actions.
- Mood or atmosphere: the feeling created by the mix of other elements, like a dark forest at night, compared to a bright living room during a party.
How to use setting to reveal backstory
The world and how we interact with it can reveal character, relationships between characters, or significant events in your story’s world—both past and present.
Using setting to show these things allows you to reveal backstory without getting bogged down in long descriptions of the past. Here are three ways to use setting to reveal backstory.
Use setting to show us a significant event in the character's past
The setting can trigger a memory that helps the reader understand where your character is coming from and why they act the way they do.
Let’s look at an example:
It wasn’t even the same restaurant. Not nearly as expensive, the place looked shabby with its faded red walls, old-timey framed pictures of places that were so generic they could’ve been taken anywhere. The tables were stacked together so close that servers could barely slide between them, and the menus were sticky—spilled drinks or sauce, he’d told himself—the air thick with the smell of deep-fried food. And yet the noise of conversation, the smile of a waiter, the smooth jazz in the background, and the sight of the chocolate soufflé brought him back to a different time, different restaurant, a different date.
On that night long past, she’d stared at the ring perched on top of her dessert. Nerves fluttered in his stomach as he prepared to go down on one knee, but she caught his eye. When she shook her head, time stood still. He couldn't breathe.
He blinked, and the image faded. The woman in front of him wasn’t his ex, just another random girl he’d asked out on a date. Not her.
Here, we have the setting, the restaurant, that triggers Michael’s memory of the time he proposed to a former girlfriend, and she shot him down.
We used the setting to show the contrast between the restaurant he’s in now and the one he was in back then, so the reader understands how different these situations were. How much effort he’d put in then and how little he’s put in now.
By using specific word choices like shabby, old-timey, generic, stacked, and sticky, we get a real sense of the place he’s in and how he sees it. It calls to our senses: the visual, the feel, and the smell. It tells us he knows it’s not a great place, so clearly he wasn’t really trying to impress his date.
And yet he can’t escape the memory that comes from different details. The noise, a smile, smooth jazz, and a chocolate soufflé. Again, this calls to our senses: sound and sight. This pulls us closer into the experience.
And because we know the restaurant was different and more expensive, we imagine a very different type of restaurant for his proposal. The setting sparks a significant moment. We didn't have to delve into pages and pages of flashback– it's all there in the quick flash of memory he has.
Use setting to reveal the relationship between characters
With this technique, you use the setting to play characters against each other or against the protagonist, for instance, an ex, a frenemy, or a particularly loved or unloved relative.
Here's an example:
Josie’s living room mirrored her personality. The space was used to its full capacity, not because of the plush sofa or wooden apothecary table—barely visible underneath the stacks of books—but because of the bookshelves and cabinets crammed together. The smell of dust clung to the air, making it hard to breathe. Diana was sure she saw some flashes of colorful wallpaper here and there, but it was all chaotic. Her fingers itched to clear away the takeout carelessly left on the carpeted floor and clear away some of the books, only she knew how Josie hated it when people touched her stuff, especially her books. So Diana shook her head, sighed, and made her way to the sofa with a fond smile, waiting for Josie to return.
Here, we can gather something about Josie’s character through the eyes of Diana. This also tells us something about their relationship. Clearly, Diana is different from Josie, as she regards the mess with itching fingers.
But she also has knowledge of what Josie likes and dislikes, which shows to the reader they know each other well. Finally, as she’s sitting with a fond smile, this tells us they’re likely friends, and Diana has accepted this part of Josie’s personality.
Use setting to allude to a significant event in the story’s world
The significant event could be a war that happened at some point and still affects your characters. Or it could’ve been a terrorist attack, a women’s rights march, or a move to another city. Maybe it's an old rift that is still creating unrest in family life.
This type of backstory speaks to the larger world of your story, whether it's fantasy, historical, or contemporary. Just make sure the significant event from the past is impacting your character in their current story life.
Let’s have a look at an example:
Brianna walked through the castle. As her fingers brushed the wall, little bits of rock broke off. Light streamed in, illuminating the remainders of the battle—rusted swords and armor, bones of people long gone, and splintered wood littered the floor. Here and there were dark patches in the stone where the blood had never left. Even though the battle had taken place a decade ago, it still smelled like death.
This shows the reader that there was a battle once, that the castle was at least partly destroyed, and that many people died. We don't fully know how that battle has impacted Brianna yet, but this quick bit of backstory sets up opportunity to show us more about how the war informs her current dilemma.
Again, through the use of different senses—touch, sight, and smell—we get a clearer picture of what might be at stake—what's been lost and what needs to be restored?
When you use setting this way, play up the details that only your character would notice due to their experiences or specific point of view. An artist will notice different details in their world than a soldier or a child might. Use that perspective to your advantage.
Can you think of any stories where the setting triggers or sets up backstory in a meaningful way? If so, share in the comments.
Find a piece of backstory or a piece of setting in your manuscript. Consider how you can enhance the scene by merging backstory and setting together to reveal more about the character, stakes, or story world.
Need a prompt? Your character is walking through the grocery store. The backstory is that they experienced an armed robbery a year ago.
Take fifteen minutes to write. When you’re done, share your practice in the Pro Practice Workshop here, then give feedback to three other writers.
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