Is Backstory Necessary?

Batman's backstory explains why he chases criminals dressed as a bat.

We received this question from Ruth Huish:

Often I read a book and they spend so much time focusing on the subplot that I just want to say, “Get over it! I want to hear about the time-sensitive plot at hand.” And usually that plot has to do with the main character’s backstory. If done correctly, it can make the story interesting, but does backstory have to be part of your current plot? I mean, at all? Will my character be perceived as a blank character if the backstory is mentioned but not part of her character motive? I honestly feel like if I include her parents/past life in the subplot it’s a little too cliché.

It’s no surprise that Ruth feels using backstory is cliché. While backstory is critical in some works, it isn’t always necessary, and it’s frequently found where it doesn’t belong. Let’s look at what backstory is for and the right reasons for working it into your narrative.

How Backstories Are Created

Most backstories are invented for these two reasons.

To Develop a Character

Many storytellers have been instructed to create backstories for their characters to get to know them better. This can help storytellers step in their character’s shoes and understand the root cause of emotional issues. It can also flesh out details that shape the character, like whether they spent their childhood feeding farm animals or dodging traffic. Writing character backstories isn’t strictly necessary, but many people consider it an essential part of their creative process.

As an Accident of the Plotting Process

It’s common for storytellers to create an initial draft or outline of their work and later cut the beginning out. Often the plot doesn’t heat up until the original chapter two, and that makes a more engaging beginning than what the storyteller first envisioned. When this happens, the old beginning becomes backstory. In many cases, this old beginning is an instigating incident that happened years ago, too long ago to make a good starting point for the story.

Why Unnecessary Backstory Is So Common

Most backstories aren’t important enough to be included in the main storyline. Otherwise it would be just “story.” So why do they intrude so often?

Storytellers Get Attached to Their Homework

Storytellers hate it when their creative output goes to waste. They may have created the backstory to develop their protagonist, but the result of this simple exercise can be an elaborate story in itself. The storyteller falls in love with the backstory and looks for ways to work it into the main piece. Even if they chose to oust their original beginning, it can be hard to let go.

In a best case scenario, the backstory is weaved seamlessly into the central plot. In the 2008 film WALL-E, the main character is a trash compacting robot assigned to clean up Earth after it became uninhabitable. The story opens long after, when he’s the last compactor robot still operating. However, the backstory showing why he’s alone on Earth is tightly entwined with the story’s principal conflict: whether it’s time for humans to go back home.

In more unfortunate cases, an extraneous subplot is added or unnecessary flashbacks interrupt important scenes. The 2015 film Jupiter Ascending opens with a glut of scenes about Jupiter’s parents and how she was born. While it’s useful to know she’s an undocumented immigrant, the details about her parents never become relevant to her struggle to save Earth.

Storytellers Love the Mystique of Backstory

Some storytellers love using backstory as a source of mystery and depth. They’ll hide the backstory at first, building up the mystery, so they can make a big reveal in the form of a flashback. In the anime Madoka Magica, the dark magical girl Homura is hostile and mysterious. We don’t know why she acts the way she does until an episode is devoted to her, revealing not only her motivating backstory but also another key mystery: why Madoka is so powerful.

But many times, backstory doesn’t have the right information for a good reveal. It could be so essential that the audience needs to know it right away or so tangential that the audience doesn’t care about it, despite the fuss. The reveal in Madoka Magica worked well because Homura is an important, plot-driving character, yet not the main character. This gives her backstory the right level of importance for a late flashback.

When Backstory Is Necessary

While many writers burden their stories by stuffing in their homework, some have created situations that don’t make sense without backstory for context. A hero’s background may be so critical to their identity that audiences can’t understand them without knowing it. In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen is the primary breadwinner and protector of her family, even though her mother is around. In fact, Katniss clearly resents her mother. This would be bizarre if the backstory didn’t explain it: after her father died, her mother sunk deep into depression, leaving the children to fend for themselves.

In cases where the hero is making unusual decisions because of their past, withholding their history for a later reveal is a risky proposition. Your audience may not reach your big reveal if they don’t like or understand the main character.

Backstory can also be critical to the plot. Sometimes the beginning of a conflict is dull enough to trim but contains essential details for understanding or solving the problem. When this happens, backstory should be worked into the narrative. What if in The Terminator, we never learned how and why Kyle Reese was sent to save Sarah Connor?

But if your backstory isn’t essential to understanding and enjoying the story, don’t include it. A passing mention is fine, but flashbacks or exposition focusing on irrelevant history will hurt your story. Extraneous info just isn’t entertaining.

So to answer Ruth’s question, mentioning backstory that isn’t motivating your character won’t make your character blank, but it will make your story dull.

Including Backstory

If you’ve decided backstory is essential to your work, that doesn’t mean you should pull out a flashback. Take a step back, and consider whether your audience just needs to know what happened or if they must experience the moment for themselves.

If readers or viewers need the logistics of who got revenge on whom, just tell them. If it’s important or interesting, you can elaborate on the tale as one character tells another the full story.

However, if your audience must understand how a character felt at the moment a past event occurred, a flashback is justified. A flashback scene will allow you to better establish context and show all the nuanced emotions they had. That can be essential for establishing character motivation.

You might also want a flashback if your past event contains critical details that foreshadow future events. Imagine: your hero keeps remembering a crime they witnessed as a child, then finally realizes this memory nags them because something in the scene was out of place. That something becomes the final clue in the puzzle they’re solving.

To work a flashback into your narrative, present your point of view character with something that reminds them of the past event. They might catch a scent they haven’t experienced since that day or run into an old memento while they’re cleaning. Then their thoughts can drift off into the past, taking the audience with them. Or you can just use a pensieve.

Most backstory exists to serve the storyteller, not the audience. Knowing the history of your characters and their world allows you to add rich details and thoughtful complexity to your work. If you’re tempted to do more than that, ask yourself: are you including backstory because your audience wants to know it or because you want them to know it?

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  1. GeniusLemur

    The most important thing to remember: the reader/viewer/etc. is here for the story, not the backstory.

  2. S.D. Miller

    Advice I’ve heard is to do 100 times more research than you think you’ll need, but then only put 1% of that research into your story. The same can be said for backstory. Create it so you’ll know it. So it’ll be floating in the back of your brain. So you’ll understand your characters. And create far more than will appear in your story because by the time you hit “save” on your final draft, what you actually use will not be what you thought you needed when you started the project. The trick is to reveal to the reader only what the story needs.

    I have a problem with my WIP. I know my villain’s motivation. How events in his childhood got twisted around in his little boy brain, and the negatives became amplified. How he became obsessed with the truth, and his finding the perfect woman (she’s useless at lying). The events that led to him believing their baby daughter was not his. How and where he obtained the grimore pages that showed him how to conjure up the Angel of Truth so he could gain the power to always know truth from lie. Unfortunately there never was a good place to put any of this in the story.

    My villain had no visible motivation. Why would anyone murder his wife and sacrifice his little girl in a demonic ritual? Why would anyone want to become demon possessed, lose his free will, and turn into a monster? No one does. My villain didn’t stop to think that “angel” meant “fallen angel,” or that “give yourself to” meant “become possessed by.” His obsession led to desperation, and his desperation led to mental blindness.

    The writing fell apart during the Big Love Scene between hero and heroine. The heroine wanted to know why the villain (the hero’s brother) is so screwed up. She only asked the same question readers will ask.

    I could spend several pages having the hero explain what he knows. But right before the Big Love Scene is the wrong place to do that. If the reader already knows, then a line or two of narrative summary works.

    I was hoping to finish my first draft before launching into major edits, but I need to insert the villain’s backstory. I identified a scene in Act I that belonged to the villain, which I could rewrite. I just needed to create a new character he would trust enough to open up to. This is out of character for him, so I need motivation for that trust. Of course true to character he kills his new confidant a dozen chapters later when he discovers she betrayed his trust.

    It should work.

    • Chris Winkle

      That’s a tricky situation. The pitfall of adding characters to be a listener is that they can end up feeling superfluous to the story. However, since you have some drama with her later, it sounds like you’re avoiding that.

  3. S.D. Miller

    Thanks, Chris. A writer friend sent me the link to your article on characters eating spinach and candy, and I’ve read many articles since. Useful stuff. I appreciate it.

  4. E. H.

    I tend to like flashbacks or even conversations between characters about their pasts if it doesn’t get to our of hand. I don’t even mind regular switching between a past and present narrative.

    But I generally hate prequels (some exceptions as always). I like for the past developed in the original work plus my own imagination to be sufficient. Tolkien’s “prequels” actually predated Lord of the Rings but just weren’t published yet, so they come across as authentic works.

    • Cay Reet

      I like it when backstory is woven into dialogue, because it seems the most natural way – people talk about their past, their memories. I’m not so sure about flashbacks, but if they’re done well and there’s not too many of them, they can also be a very good way of bringing the past into the story.

    • S.D. Miller

      E. H., you refer to 2 very different techniques. However the mention of Tolkien also brings up 2 more backstory-insertion techniques he used, plus a 5th that often plagues his books.

      Past and present narrative: I think what you mean is presenting the past in some scenes, and the present in others. Do you refer to presenting the past as a flashback? But there’s also the technique of using both a past-tense and present-tense narrative style in different scenes. Rare, but I have seen it used effectively in professionally published works–but neither was fiction. E.g. a first-person essay by Japanese-American man looking back on the interment during WW-II. Telling his grandfather’s tale with a past-tense narrative, and his own using present tense. The other example, also in first person, is preparing for the adventure in past-tense, and experiencing the adventure in present-tense. The effect is subtle, but sweet.

      Prequels: “The Silmarillion” is a prequel. A complete work (book) that tells the story before the story. Prequels can be hot, and when done well are a great way to keep readers invested in your storyworld. But Tolkien also used used a prologue in “The Lord of the Rings”.

      Prologue: A chapter-length bit of backstory inserted before chapter 1. Often using different characters, a different setting, or at least a different time. Tolkien’s prologue (labeled as such) in “Lord of the Rings” is 20 pages titled “Concerning Hobbits”. It’s not even a story, just author notes. Most prologues found in today’s novels at least try to be entertaining. Entertaining or not, some readers skip anything labeled prologue.

      Appendices: Extremely rare in fiction, but Tolkien got away with dumping an additional hundred-plus pages of author notes at the end of “The Lord of the Rings”. Only those of us who obsess over Tolkien bother to read them. Modern authors put this sort of stuff on their website.

      Notes and forwards: The subject of Tolkien is further confused by the compulsion some editors have about inserting notes and forwards into their edition of the books. A sort of backstory on the publishing process. Tolkien isn’t to blame.

      Did Tolkien do flashbacks, or just appendices? Was Smeagol’s story shown as a flashback in the book? It was a flashback in the movie.

      Other ways to pad out your word count, but are not backstory insertion techniques:

      In “Lolita” Nabokov inserted a forward. A 3-page report written by a fictitious doctor after the natural death of the protagonist, and is a psychiatric analysis of the protagonist. It’s actually an epilogue, but placed before chapter 1. Do any modern readers actually read anything placed before chapter 1?

      Epilogues get read if the story was good. Probably fueled by a hunger for more of these characters and this storyworld. But epilogues typically suck. The one at the end of the last Harry Potter book, “The Deathly Hallows” was completely predictable and added nothing to the story.

  5. S.D. Miller

    Somewhere on YouTube is a short interview of a literary agent, where the agent says she always looks for a clear statement of story goal somewhere in the first 10 pages. What will drive this story forward? What is the protagonist trying to accomplish?

    At the time my own story was vague. My protagonist / hero is a 20 y.o. rancher’s son who’d been transformed into a wolf (backstory). He didn’t like being a wolf, and he knew what he must do to break the wolf curse (backstory). But for the past 14 months he’d done nothing but learn how to survive as a wolf (backstory). Then when he finally tried to do something, he was critically wounded and would have died if this 17 y.o. girl hadn’t found him and patched him up (backstory). Yet from chapter 1 onward he only sorta starts drifting toward the solution, picking up momentum as he progresses. Was it his affection for this girl that causes him to finally begin to act?

    To fix this I started with scene 2 of chapter 1, which was in the heroine’s POV, and added a trigger to the end of the scene. The heroine says something to her best friend (2 girls and a wolf hanging out together, it could happen). Then I created a new scene 3 in the protagonist’s POV where he recalls 2 key incidents from his past that puts a laser-like focus on his task.

    Because he’s a wolf he can’t say stuff, but he can think it. His reaction to the trigger is: “Those girls were innocent… That’s it! That’s the key.” He recalls incident #1: “It was a year ago April…” And in the next paragraph incident #2: “A month later…” All the backstory needed in two paragraphs.

    The final few short paragraphs reveals why he’d not acted sooner, what he must do to stop the villain, and the vague notion that he lacks the skills but will somehow figure it out. His figuring it out is what Act II is all about.

    If he’d been in his man-shape and not his wolf-shape, he’d have said all this aloud to the 2 girls. Maybe it’s best he couldn’t speak. They’d just have muddled the telling with questions, and the scene would have grown by 3 pages. As is, chapter 1 totals 9 pages in manuscript format.

    Mission accomplished! Protagonist’s clear statement of his story goal, and all within the first 9 pages. Yay me. ;-D

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