Backstory…it’s a word that’s thrown around as crucial to solid character development, but what is it and why is it important?
What is Backstory?
A character’s backstory is the story of their life, their whole background. Where did they come from? Who’s their family? What experiences and events have shaped their life?
Think about your own life. Can you separate who you are from where you come from? If you were to remove or change your parents, siblings, socio-economic status, church affiliation (or not), friendships, the place you grew up (big city or rural town), any jobs you’ve held, relationships, school, and life experiences, would you be a different person? Yes.
Without a doubt, your values and how you behave and react to situations would change.
For example, if you have a great family whom you love, it might be difficult to leave them if you are given an opportunity to move far away.
However, if you aren’t at all close to your family or maybe you don’t like them, you might leave them behind at the first opportunity. Consider Harry Potter. He left. But think about his cousin Dudley. He stayed. What would you?
Why is back story important?
1) Back story provides the reasons behind a character’s actions.
For example, if we have a character run into a 7-11 for a drink. Their back story will dictate if they’re going to grab a vitamin water or a Monster energy drink depending on if they’re a health nut or exhausted from working or partying too much.
Imagine a robber comes into the store and pulls a gun. Your character has a variety of options. They might dive into the walk in cooler and hide behind cases of beer and soda. They might confront the the robber and try to talk them out of killing somebody. Or perhaps they leap the counter to help the clerk and calm them down.
Their decision, whatever it is, must be in line with who they are, and it MUST be believable for that character. All of these decisions come down to back story.
Think about Harry Potter. His backstory is that he’s an abused and neglected orphan. When given the opportunity, he flees. But his spoiled cousin Dudley is spoiled and wants to stay with the same parents who neglected Harry. Their choices are all about their backstory.
2) A character’s back story gives them depth, so the reader cares about them.
We’ve all read stories that we didn’t like much because we just didn’t connect with the characters. As writers, it’s our job to create characters that our readers can connect with.
We don’t care about characters based on what they look like or how they’re dressed, we care about them because of WHO they are and WHAT they do, both of which are dictated by their backstory.
Remember that caring about a character is NOT the same thing as liking a character. It’s about empathizing with a character.
This concept is why stories like Breaking Bad work. Walter, the main character, is a high school chemistry teacher who begins to make crystal meth, a deplorable choice. But, he’s doing it because he’s been diagnosed with cancer, his wife is pregnant, and his son is handicapped. He’s desperate to do something to make sure they’re going to be okay if and when he dies. No matter how deplorable the idea of making meth is, he’s doing it for a noble reason, so we understand and empathize with him.
When I watched the show, did I like Walter? Not at all. But did I empathize with his situation? You bet.
Draco Malfoy is the same kind of character. On one level, he wants to do the right thing, but his father is demanding that he follow in the family’s evil footsteps. As he gets older, he struggles more and more with this conflict.
Remember when you’re developing a character’s backstory that good characters have bad things in their lives and bad guys have good things in their lives. Nobody is all good or all bad. Mix it up and you’ll create characters that your readers will care about.