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.
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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