Knowing and incorporating back story into your novel

This post is the sixteenth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

Before you began writing, I suggested you develop your characters. This not only saves you in rewriting but the characters will be more realistic and their behavior consistent if you know them well. One of the ways to do this is to develop your characters’ back story. The back story is your character’s history – the event and circumstances that made them into the person they are today.

Reasons you should know your character’s backstory

  • You will know which major events in their past may affect their motivation during the main story arc
  • You are able to inject subtle clues about your character’s past into your narrative which can create mystery and interest for your reader
  • Your character’s past may be a major driving force of the main plot
  • By understanding your character’s history, you may discover the perfect opening scene for your story

Now you don’t have to know all this for every character. But you should know it for your main characters. Everything in their past as well as their innate personality traits will dictate their action, which in turn drives the plot of your story.

Creating character back story can be a time-consuming task. But doing so will build strong, solid characters that come to life for your readers.

Now you may be wondering why I am discussing building their back story when this is something that should have been done before you began writing. I am bringing this up now because as you write your story, you may want to incorporate some of this back story into your novel.

But how do you do this? And does your reader really need to know this?

The basic rule of thumb is to tell the reader only what he or she needs to know to understand what is happening in the story at that moment.

Basically, you want to add the back story in little bits – a couple of sentences here and there. You don’t want large blocks of text. This stops the momentum of the story. Writing about back story stagnates your story. It is telling the reader information rather than showing them. It doesn’t engage any of the reader’s senses. They are no longer actively participating in the story. They are busy reading background that might or might not be relevant to the action that is about to start.

I read on another website a good way to think about this. Consider adding back story in terms of taking bites. You can’t eat a whole cake in one bite. However, you can eat it by taking lots of little bites. Trying to eat a cake in one bite could cause you to choke. It is the same with back story; include it in small bits so the reader doesn’t choke.

Because back story slows down the reader, one place you want to make sure you DO NOT include a lot of back story is in the beginning of your story. You only have a few pages to hook the reader so use those pages to give them action. Yes, your character might be motivated by their past, but the opening pages isn’t the place to go into depth about that past.

Back story is important in character development but just because you spent the time developing that information doesn’t mean you need to incorporate all of it into your story. Remember that the best fiction is all about action. Your job is to portray the action and let the reader draw his or her own conclusion. And it is easier to do this with well-developed characters whose actions are consistent with the back stories.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

#7 – The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot

#8 – To Outline or not to outline 

#9 – The importance of a story arc

#10 – The importance of tension and pace

#11 – Prologue and opening scenes

#12 – Beginning and ending scenes in a novel

#13 – The importance of dialogue…and a few tips on how to write it

#14 – Using Internal Dialogue in your novel

#15 – More dialogue tips and help with dialogue tags

Starting over…beginning a new novel

HeirAlexandria_ebookcoverIn January, I released my latest fantasy novel, The Heir to Alexandria. The months of February through April were packed with some non-writing projects so it is only now in May that I am finding time to work on my next new novel.

Sigh. It isn’t that I don’t want to start a new novel, but starting a fantasy novel is a lot of work. It goes beyond just deciding on a plot and building characters. I have a whole world to create. And that takes time.

And while I do enjoy developing a believable setting for my story, sometimes I would love to be able to skip the planning part and just begin writing. But I know that without some planning that I would be doing a lot of rewriting.

So first comes plot…I need a compelling story with a well-defined conflict before I can even worry about the world building. And I think I have the compelling story, but I still need to fine tune the exact nature of the conflict.

Once that is done, it will be time to develop the characters (and at least one from this new book will be a dragon).dragon This can be fun. You get to explore their backgrounds and discover their flaws as well as their strengths. Over the next few weeks, I will develop histories, descriptions, and motivations for all my characters. Knowing these details makes the characters more vivid and real.

But because once again I have been busy with travel and doctor’s appointments (see Monday’s post for details regarding the medical issue), I haven’t had as much time to anything. But with character building in mind, I have used my spare time to collect a list of names for some minor characters.

wizardAnd there is still a lot of world building to do. I need to decide on the political and religious beliefs as well as define how magic will be used and what limits there are to it. And yes, you do need to add limits or consequences to your use of magic so that it is believable and can add to the conflict of the story rather than be the supreme answer to all problems.

As part of my world building, I also usually create a map of my world so that I can refer to it as I am writing. This step is quite useful in knowing where your characters are, and how long it will take them to get to other locations. Readers might catch that it took two weeks to reach the seaside village but only two days to return home. Knowing where your characters are and what type of environment they are in will help create that believable world.

So here I am again…starting over. So much planning to do before I even begin writing. It sometimes feels overwhelming, but I know it is will be worth it.

Developing Character Back Story #AtoZChallenge

BToday is day 2 of the A to Z Challenge. The letter of the day is B which is for Back Story.

I have written before about incorporating back story into your novel but today I wanted to focus on building your character back story. This is something that you need to do BEFORE you begin writing. And not all of this backstory will make it into the story but it will help you develop strong, believable characters.

Now you don’t have to do this for all characters but for your main characters, you will need to know the events and circumstances that made them the person they are today. Everything in their past as well as their innate personality traits will dictate their action, which in turn drives the plot of your story.

Reasons you should know your character’s backstory

  • You will know which major events in their past may affect their motivation during the main story arc
  • You are able to inject subtle clues about your character’s past into your narrative which can create mystery and interest your reader
  • Your character’s past may be a major driving force of the main plot
  • By understanding your character’s history, you may discover the perfect opeing scene for your story

At the very minimum, you should know the basics for every character – what they look like, what occupation they have and a general sense of what they want.

For your main characters (and some minor characters) you should know even more of their history. To do this, you can fill out a character worksheet, create a timeline or write a short narrative.

Character Worksheet

These list the physical description (age, height, manner of dress, etc.), personal characteristics (goals, hobbies, likes, dislikes, etc.), living situation (occupation, home, pets) and background (birthplace, education, family) of your character. You can probably find an actual worksheet somewhere online. Or email me and I will send you the one I have. (I will admit that I don’t use this as it doesn’t lend itself to fantasy characters as well as it would characters in a more contemporary setting.)

Timeline/Outline

Another option is to create a timeline or outline of your characters history. Starting with their birth, add in other major events that happened to your character up until the time the story begins. These would need to be extensive for major characters and could be sparser for minor characters.

Narrative

If you don’t want to do an outline or a timeline, you may just want to write a couple paragraghs (or pages) that chronical their lives. You just need to be sure to include all the basics – family life, education, likes, and major events and so on.

Creating character back story can be a time-consuming task. But doing so will build strong, solid characters that come to life for your readers.

Incorporating back story into your novel

Every person, every character, has a past. They have events and circumstances that made them into the person they are today. This history is known as the back story.

When developing characters for your novel, you need to know at least some of their back story. For main characters, you need to know their history extremely well. You should know them inside and out.

Creating this back story can be a time-consuming task but is a necessary part of building solid characters that come to life for the readers. (And back story just doesn’t apply to people. Towns, schools, worlds – all have a back story.)

So now that you know all this detailed information, how do you go about letting your reader know about it? Or do they need to know it?

The basic rule of thumb is to tell the reader only what he or she needs to know to understand what is happening in the story at that moment.

Basically, you want to add the back story in little bits – a couple of sentences here and there. You don’t want large blocks of text. This stops the momentum of the story. Writing back story stagnates your story. It is telling the reader information rather than showing them. It doesn’t engage any of the reader’s senses. They are no longer actively participating in the story. They are busy reading background that might or might not be relevant to the action that is about to start.

I read on another website a good way to think about this. Consider adding back story in terms of taking bites. You can’t eat a whole cake in one bite. However, you can eat it by taking lots of little bites. Trying to eat a cake in one bite could cause you to choke. It is the same with back story; include it in small bits so the reader doesn’t choke.

Because back story slows down the reader, one place you want to make sure you DO NOT include a lot of back story is in the beginning of your story. You only have a few pages to hook the reader so use those pages to give them action. Yes, your character might be motivated by their past, but the opening pages isn’t the place to go into depth about that past.

The best fiction is all about action. Your job is to portray the action and let the reader draw his own conclusion. And it is easier to do this with well-developed characters whose actions are consistent with the back stories. Just remember to not slow down the action telling the reader that back story.