Today we're talking about the part of the story that isn't actually part of the story.
Except... it is.
So exactly what is backstory, and what are the four components that give it depth and dimension?
What is backstory?
Backstory is everything that ever happened to a character before the opening page of their story. It's the character history that exists in your (the storyteller's) head. I know that sounds like a "duh, obviously" sort of statement. But what we need to pay attention to most is "before".
How much of what happens before the story's opening page do we actually need to flesh out?
Often, writers only focus on the bits and pieces of character backstories that they expect will be directly relevant to the stories they want to tell. And that makes sense from a logical perspective, because who has the time (or energy or desire) to write out the entire life events of a fictional character?
As a writer, you need to use your creative time and energy wisely. And that means learning to predict which parts of a character's history matter in the on-page storytelling.
So let's look at four ways you can diversify the creation of your character's backstory and how those four backstory components are essential to the story you want to tell. (Plus, a bonus peek at how backstory can help you solve sticky plotting problems.)
Imagine your character is a sports star and has a trading card with their picture and basic info on it. No matter the sport, the first few lines of a trading card usually reveal the player's name, specialization, age, height, weight, and some sort of visual representation of their face or form. These are facts that define the very basic public image of the person, and they're usually things that the person did not explicitly choose for themself.
When you're defining your character's stats, you're really just capturing the exterior basics of who they are at the moment the story—the first stage of their growth transformation—starts. This is a little counterintuitive when thinking of backstory, because not all these facts are in the past. Some of these stats will change throughout a person's lifetime (like age, weight, height, appearance), so that's why it's important to begin by establishing your character's physical information in the present.
There are some additional stats you should consider including in your character profile—that's what we're working toward with our backstory research—that are historical, but these are also usually formative events and circumstances the character did not choose and cannot change. Here are some examples:
PRO TIP: Once you've started brainstorming the basics of your hero's backstory, start a worksheet where you can keep track of everything that comes to mind. Make a section for each of the four types of backstory we talk about in this article, and fill out each section as you work through that part of your hero's characterization.
Imagine you're meeting someone for the first time. What might you ask them (or vice versa) to start getting to know them?
We don't usually start off by telling people our stats, but we do feel comfortable revealing surface-level details. We might talk about what we do for a living, or our favorite food, color, band, or season. We may test potential social compatibility by saying whether we're a cat or dog person, that we like waffles over pancakes or tea over coffee, or what we generally do for fun.
Surface desires are all the myriad non-critical (and widely inoffensive) things a character like or loves, dislike or hates. These are the memorable or noteworthy pieces of their life that, if they were a real person, they might choose to share with strangers. This list matters because it tells us more about the character's personality without explicitly defining their personality traits.
If you've started a backstory worksheet, listing surface desires where you can revisit them will help you subtly define your character, now and as it evolves over time. Then, you'll have a go-to list of line-level details you can layer into your story to bring life and depth to your character's everyday life.
Step 2 of my How to Build Breakthrough Backstories training gives a list of examples that can help you brainstorm your hero's initial list of Surface Desires.
Now we're getting to the juicy part. A character's morality affects the way they instinctively react to new stressors and temptations. Morality defines the basic structure of our belief system, which ultimately affects the way we make decisions. Psychological conditioning also influences our decision-making process, but we'll talk about that in the next section.
A character's moral beliefs tend to be rooted in their upbringing—whether they eschew or embrace the expectations of their society or culture is up to you—and generally fall into one of three categories: religion, politics, or money.
These are the topics (and beliefs) that can make or break relationships of all kinds. So as a writer, you can harness the sensitive nature of a character's morality to strengthen their bonds with another character, cause a rift or conflict (even with themselves), or put them in a situation that challenges their innate beliefs.
Don't be afraid to write a big, deep, complex backstory. You never know when one of your throwaway list items may turn out to be the answer to your plotting problems. (See the formula here!)
The human mind is fascinating landscape, with complex pathways and frighteningly adept defense mechanisms. We make instinctive decisions based on what has happened in our past because we learn from our (and other people's) mistakes, failures, successes, and triumphs. So our personal history intrisically affects the way we make decisions.
There are three main ways we can dig into our character's psyches to find out how and why they make decisions: trauma, habits, and beliefs based in experience.
As writers, traumas are usually the easiest of these to uncover (or create) for our characters. Traumas can be complex or acute, but they always leave a lasting mark on the character's decision-making process. Whether a person is introverted because they were bullied for stuttering over the course of years or whether they have an incapacitating fear of flying after surviving one airplane crash, they inherently (sometimes unknowingly) factor those experiences into certain decisions.
Habits seem like an obvious character element to create, but I find that many authors tend to ignore these smaller moments in favor of more emotionally influential elements like trauma. But habits can tell us a lot about a character. I drink a cup of coffee every morning, and I always make it in exactly the same way. I started my morning coffee habit as a way to try something new (when I gave up wine), and it turned into a thing I do regardless of whether I actually want or need coffee. It's a comfort activity now, more than a craving or a physical benefit. Morning coffee reinforces that my world is stable and promises that my day could be an uneventful one.
We talked briefly about beliefs in the morality section above, but psychological beliefs come from a different part of our psyche. These beliefs are based in personal experience, things that happened directly to us or people we care about. A small business owner who struggles through their taxes every year and consistently gets audited and stymied by the IRS may believe that the government only cares about corporations. Their personal experience with this branch of the government has taught them that their small business is unimportant or has somehow earned the punishment of being singled out.
Psychological factors are important in a character's backstory because they give us clues about what character Needs may be going unfulfilled and provide a decision-making framework for the untransformed version of the character that you can use to fuel the first third of their growth journey.
What's your character's backstory missing?
Take this quiz to find out!
What is backstory? Here's the formula.
When you create your character's backstory, set up a section for each of these backstory components. Fill in each backstory category as you begin to think about who your character is as the story starts and what things (big or small) happened in their past.
Backstory = Character Stats + Surface Desires + Morality + Psychological Factors
Even if you only list a few ideas in each category, your character (and story) will be richer and have more depth than if you skipped this step.
You may not use everything you jot down. If only a quarter of your hero's backstory makes it onto the page, that's totally fine. This step benefits you, the storyteller, more than the character themself.
The more you know about your character's backstory, the more fluidly these little nuances and moments will flow into the story as you write it.
So don't be afraid to write a big, deep, complex backstory. You never know when one of your throwaway list items may turn out to be the answer to your plotting problems.
If you're still confused about how the backstory formula works or have questions about how to use it, check out Lesson #3 in the How to build Breakthrough Backstories course. You can skip directly to Lesson 3 here or click below to learn more about the course itself.
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Questions or thoughts? Leave a comment!
I'd love to know what you thought of my backstory formula. Do you have any go-to questions or methods you lean on for your own storytelling process?