Knowing the history of your main character allows you to craft a character arc that keeps readers engaged from start to finish.
In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, author C.S. Lewis sends the Pevensie children to live with a professor in the English countryside to escape London and the havoc of World War 2.
Peter, the eldest, feels he has to become the man of the house in the absence of his father, who is fighting in the war.
Susan, the second child and oldest daughter, also feels she must play a parental role, since their mother isn’t with them either. She attempts to be the voice of reason and interceptor of conflict.
Edmund, the third child, responds to all this by acting out. He resents his siblings acting like parents and feels they belittle him. He’s eager to find approval and comfort elsewhere.
Lucy, the youngest and the most cheerful and curious, is not responsible for anyone else, and her siblings often underestimate her. She responds with bravery and determination.
The Pevensie children’s birth order dramatically impacts their personalities and their character arcs.
Details in a character’s backstory can immerse your reader in a world that feels real.
What Is Backstory?
It’s what has happened to your character that has made them who they are on page one. This builds the foundation for their motivations. Where your character comes from indicates where they’re going and why.
Always create a plausible motivation for your character’s behavior.
In The Count of Monte Cristo, jealous conspirators falsely imprison protagonist Edmond Dantès and ruin his life. Dantès escapes after several years and spends the rest of the novel seeking revenge. Eventually suffering the unintended consequences of vengeance, he realizes he’s wrong for playing God.
Where your character comes from should inform every decision they make.
- What drives your character?
- What does your character have to overcome?
- What holds your character back?
Backstory helps explain your character and gives readers the ability to empathize and engage with them.
An unlikeable character’s backstory can make them more complex and even sympathetic—an important quality for a villain.
How to Write a Character’s Backstory
Determine the character’s basic details, like:
- Cultural background
- Economic status
Such a character profile allows you to develop specific details.
If you’re writing a young character, how does their age affect their ability to handle conflict? Are they impulsive? Or are they unusually mature for their age because they were forced to grow up quickly?
Outlining character backstories
Even if you’re a Pantser (writing by the seat of your pants — as I do— as opposed to outlining), I encourage novices to experiment with outlining backstories.
Character development sometimes brings aha moments where you realize why a character does what they do.
Writing without outlining forces you to ask questions as you go and consider why your characters make their choices.
Don’t overload each character introduction with backstory
Be careful not to reveal a character’s backstory all at once. Info-dumping becomes obvious to readers and deprives them of the fun of gradually deducing what’s going on.. Give them a role in the reading experience beyond just consuming facts.
Be strategic. How you reveal your character’s history throughout is key to the success of your story. Don’t allow information to disrupt the flow. Rather use it to enhance the plot.
Backstory should be layered in with the action, paying off subtle setups as you go.. What do your character’s responses to adversity say about them?
Make sure character backstories are relevant
Information that doesn’t advance your plot is better left out.
Make every word count. Though you may know every detail of every character, use only what is necessary. Reveal only enough of your character’s past to make your story make sense.
Character choices must be believable and align with your story. Your goal should be to make readers forget they’re reading because they’re immersed in the story.
That’s jeopardized when readers question your choices.
Believability doesn’t mean you have to be predictable. A character can and should experience dramatic changes, but you must provide a logical reason for it. A character with a dark past can grow into a hero.
Tragic backstories often inform complex characters who change over time, but credibility is crucial for believability.
How to create believable backstories for characters
Nuanced behaviors based on backstory can make the difference between a character and a caricature.
At the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, main character Indiana Jones admits that he hates snakes. Later, when he faces a room full of snakes, that simple character fear comes into play.
Flashbacks and dialogue
Using narrative summary to describe a character’s past may give the reader context but doesn’t move the story. Better to layer their backstory into the action.
Flashbacks immerse readers in the memories of your character and allow them to experience all the character recalls. While layering backstory into current events is preferred, when I do resort to a flashback, I make it crystal clear by using a flush left italic location and date tag, like:
San Francisco, two years prior
Dialogue can also reveal a character’s backstory, but it should serve a purpose beyond someone simply talking about themselves.
In The Silence of the Lambs, we learn about FBI trainee Clarice Sterling as she describes it to the incarcerated cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter. In exchange for information about her childhood, Lecter offers cryptic information to help her capture another killer. The dialogue enlightens the reader about the characters while also advancing the plot.
Character revelation through dialogue does not have to be as overt as that. Often it can take the form of two characters simply conversing with familiarity. They might refer to dramatic events in their past, using shorthand because each knows exactly what the other is referring to, even if the reader doesn’t. Readers sense intuitively that such setups demand payoffs, and they keep turning the pages to get to those.
Characters with a tense relationship will speak more tersely, while amicable friends will be more lighthearted — but go easy on the latter. There’s little more pleasurable in real life and yet boring on the page than two people agreeing with each other on everything. Conflict is the engine of fiction.
Speech patterns are also important and can be revealing. To show rather than tell that a character is educated, have them use proper grammar and a more advanced vocabulary.
To show rather than simply tell that a character is from a specific area of the world, have them use native colloquialisms.
Plausible actions and emotions will be informed by the characters’ backstories. Those who have been betrayed will be less trusting and more suspicious.
A character from a different cultural background may hesitate in social settings.
Also, be strategic in what you don’t show.
Let readers’ imaginations fill the gaps. They should be able to draw conclusions about your character without your having to spell it out or spoon feed the information.
Tips on Creating Character Backstories
1. Draw from your own life.
Imagine alternative versions of the turning points and defining moments in your own history — those events from your past that make you who you are.
How might things have played out for you if circumstances had been different?
2. Read voraciously
You should be reading dozens of books in your genre, first to learn by osmosis, and second to expose yourself to more perspectives, a deeper well from which to draw. What works and what doesn’t? How does the author use backstory to keep you engaged?
3. Work backwards
Start with what you know. Then determine how you got there. Consider who your character is at the beginning of your story and where you want them by the end.
Create a timeline for your character, listing important events, settings, and circumstances during their lives. Determine the defining moments in their histories and maintain a quick reference to understand their flaws and aspirations.
What failures did they experience, and how did they respond?
Were they once embarrassed and now choose to avoid that shame again?
Or did they vow to never fail again and commit to self-improvement?
Character Backstory Examples
Aragorn is introduced in The Fellowship of the Ring as aloof and mysterious, trusted by the Hobbits only because of a letter from Gandalf. At the Council of Elrond, Aragorn reveals himself as heir to the throne of Gondor by showing he carries the legendary sword Narsil. This explains why he feels such a responsibility to Middle-Earth and is willing to put himself in danger to oppose Sauron.
Another character from the same series, Gollum, is introduced as deplorable and creepy, obsessed with the One Ring. However, Gandalf explains his pitiable history as having once been a Hobbit-like person named Sméagol, who enjoyed simple things like fishing and family. When he came into the possession of the One Ring, he became corrupted to the point of being unrecognizable. Yet through the events of The Lord of the Rings series, Frodo’s pity and kindness causes him to wrestle between his corrupted identity and his former personality.
Throughout the Harry Potter series, Severus Snape is cruel to the title character. Yet Snape is seen helping Harry over and over. His loyalties are questioned throughout. However, in the last book we discover that his every action has been inspired by his love for Harry’s late mother, Lily. While he feels no affection for Harry, he does everything he can to protect him in honor of Lily.
Want to Write Better Characters?
Believable characters are essential for keeping readers engaged.
I’ve created this Character Arc Worksheet to help make character development easier.
Use it to get to know your characters, and keep it as a reference as you write.