I remember reading somewhere that in order to write a great character you first have to know that character’s backstory in great detail.
Only then, it was suggested, would you be in a position to know how the character ought to respond to certain situations. Only then can you think about developing the plot.
My gosh, how daunting. It’s like asking me to plow a large field with a spade. If I took that advice I’d never finish any story.
“The point is that the backstory is important only insofar as it sheds light on a character’s responses to the challenges posed by the plot.”
But how could we possibly know that in advance?
Yes, it might be interesting to note that your hero smokes cigarillos on his birthday if that quirk will enrich his character, but do I really need to know that he wore red scarves as a child if that observation might be of no significance to the story?
It shouldn’t be that complicated, folks.
Drilling Down to the Essentials of the Backstory
So, where does one begin looking for significant events in the backstory, especially when the story is not fully determined yet?
Let me tell you what works for me.
Because I sit halfway between being a pantser and a plotter, I begin with a sense of what my protagonist needs to achieve in the story—his goal.
Nothing too specific yet. Perhaps he needs to defeat an adversary from his past. Perhaps he needs to arrive at a certain destination at a specific time. I know he will encounter external obstacles in trying to do so, but I do not need to know exactly what they are yet.
I also know that I need to challenge his ability to achieve his goal by complicating his decision making process through a dilemma, or some inner flaw.
These clues come from thinking about the plot and character simultaneously, and in general terms—nothing too specific, at this time.
Let’s say my protagonist suffers from agoraphobia or is recovering from an addiction to alcohol or drugs.
This immediately forces me to think about what incident in the past might have given rise to this condition. Such an incident is truly worthy of being part of the backstory.
In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, my protagonist’s addiction to smoking directly affects the plot of the story. Indeed, his desire to have one last pack of cigarettes before boarding the Sidney ferry with his wife is the chief cause of his predicament.
This realisation led me to sketch in some background regarding his smoking.
Thinking about your character’s goal and relating it to his positive and negative traits, then, encourages you to come up with that part of the backstory that sheds light on why your character might have those traits in the first place.
Think of this approach as a goal-trait-backstory triad of techniques that helps grow the story in a more integrated and economical way.
Find the story goal. Relate it to your protagonist’s flaws and traits. Come up with the backstory that explains them.