Using Backstory without Using It

Cartoon Stock by Huw Aaron - Nov 7 2015

The importance of backstory cannot be overemphasized. It’s a real joy when we create a character that comes alive and starts going her own way, thinking on her own, and making decisions. When it happens, we can pat ourselves on the back.

What is backstory? It’s everything we (author) know about our character that never makes it into the final product. Because? It has nothing to do with the current story.

Why bother with it then?

The more backstory we know about each character the better. With all this information for each of our characters, we’ll have an easier time with:

  • dialogue
  • description
  • action(s)
  • motivation
  • bonding (for both writer and reader)
  • bonding (with other characters)
  • inter-character relationships
  • predictability
  • storyline
  • background
  • subtext

A Trick to Help Develop Backstory: Ask Questions

This can be a lot of fun. Make up twenty or thirty questions, or more, to ask a character. For a crime story, let’s interrogate them; use a rolled-up newspaper if they’re the least bit uncooperative. For spy novel characters, we can follow them around to see what they do when nobody’s looking — or why not inject them with Sodium Pentothal? If romance is the genre, take her out to lunch and get her drinking white wine and talking about her ex or her previous job or what she wants in a partner.

Most of this will never make it into the actual story, of course — and shouldn’t — but we must know our characters this well. Even the minor ones.

Knowing all this about a character will help especially with dialogue and action because we will know them so very, very well, that everything they say or do will just slip off the ends of our fingers as we write. Anything that doesn’t match with who they really are will feel false so we won’t even write it. (It will save major editing time later.)

Here’s are some suggestions for a list of questions to ask our characters:

  1. What’s your second name? Why did your parents give you that name?
  2. Did you ever make fun of anybody in your neighbourhood/school when you were a kid? Did anybody ever make fun of you when you were a kid?
  3. How many men/women have you slept with? Why so many? Why so few?
  4. Is there anything that could ever prompt you to take someone’s life?
  5. Do you like cats? What kind of cat do you like? What kind of cat do you most hate?
  6. Have you ever owned a dog? How did it die?
  7. Do you have any allergies?
  8. Have you ever cheated on an exam?
  9. Have you ever cheated on a spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend?
  10. Did you ever wish you were the opposite sex?
  11. Were you popular in school?
  12. Were you unpopular in school?
  13. What’s your IQ? Do you give a shit about IQs?
  14. How do you feel about swearing? What’s your favourite swear word?
  15. What’s your favourite colour?
  16. What’s your favourite article of clothing?
  17. Would you ever join a nudist colony?
  18. Did you have a happy childhood? Why? Why not?
  19. How much money do you make? What is the source of your money?
  20. Are you happy?
  21. Do you trust the police?
  22. Do you believe in God? If you do, what do you call this Being?
  23. Do you do drugs? How much?
  24. Do you drink alcoholic beverages? What kind? How often? How many?
  25. Have you ever tried an Internet dating site? (How did you make out?)
  26. What angers you the most?
  27. What turns you on the most?
  28. What excites you the most?
  29. What’s your greatest fear?
  30. Can you sing?
  31. Have you ever gone fishing?
  32. Can you cook?
  33. Do you have a favourite fast food?
  34. Do you believe in reincarnation?
  35. Do you believe in soul mates?
  36. Do you believe in half-souls?
  37. Would you kill a bug? A ladybug? A mosquito? A spider? A butterfly?
  38. Who was your first love?
  39. Have you ever been kissed?
  40. Who gave you your first kiss?
  41. If you could be an animal, which one would it be?
  42. If you could be a plant, which one would it be?
  43. Where were you born?
  44. Were you wanted?
  45. Did you enjoy school?
  46. Did/do you like your parents?
  47. Did/do you like your siblings?
  48. Did/do you like your spouse?
  49. What’s a geranium?

(Adapted from Really Stupid Writing Mistakes: How to Avoid Them)


Next post — Describing without Details

Sherrill Wark is the author of Really Stupid Writing Mistakes: How to Avoid Them:

… and Death in l’Acadie: a Kesk8a story (fiction):


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