In her book Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger wraps-up her chapter on creating and revealing a character’s backstory in this way (I paraphrase her here):
Creating backstory should be a process of discovery. The writer ought to keep asking questions about a character’s background in a back-and-forth fashion in order to explain or support that character’s motivation for their action. When the writer is in the flow, the information seems to reveal itself rather than be imposed by brute force through specific formulas. The result is a process of expanding, enriching, and deepening a character in an organic and effortless way. To help us in this process, Seger suggests that we ask these questions as we write:
“Revealing backstory in an adroit way is indispensable to the crafting of accomplished stories.”
- Is my work on backstory a process of discovery? In other words, do I let the character’s backstory unfold naturally as needed rather than imposing excessive detail on the character in a way that may not be relevant?
- As I reveal backstory, am I careful not to show more than the bare minimum needed for a character to carry the moment?
- Am I layering the information throughout the story, not lumping it all into info-heavy speeches?
- Am I revealing information in the shortest, most economical space possible? Am I able, for example, to reveal bits of backstory in a single sentence, with the help of subtext, so that the attitudes, motivations, emotions, and decisions of characters are revealed?
Although not replete, this bit of advice will improve your ability to fashion a character’s backstory in a more economical and flowing way.
Ask a series of questions to help you create an economical and organic approach to writing and revealing backstory.