How to Create a Backstory
In the last post, I covered why you might want a backstory and an abbreviated example. In this post, I’ll discuss how to create one. But first, I think I will cover:
Why/when to create a backstory
When you’re stuck. You envisioned the plot going one way and then find the planned twist won’t work.
When you have written yourself into a corner. Your protagonist has to be hard-hearted for this scene but you’ve already established her as kind and generous.
When your story feels flat/boring/ any other adjective which strikes fear in a writer’s heart. Don’t believe this too quickly. As I talk about in Everything I Write is Junk!, this may be just destructive self-talk we all occasionally fall prey to.
All these reasons assume you’re already writing the story. Backstory can be just what you need once you’ve gotten the shape of the piece. It’s the pause to take stock and hopefully re-energize.
It might be tempting to do a backstory before even starting the writing—sort of warming yourself to the character—but by and large, I’d avoid it. A backstory before writing comes dangerously close to a plot outline which I don’t think is helpful to your process.
Write, write, write
Put aside a period of time for this. You can’t usually do this in fits and starts. You can always come back once you’ve broken the back of the issue.
If it feels right to start with the definition of backstory and write the history, goals, dreams, and nightmares of your character by all means, go ahead. But I tend to do a backstory only when a problem from the section above comes up.
Your backstory will be unique but here are some general questions you can ask yourself.
What’s the problem? Don’t be brief. Do a detailed exploration of the problem up to and including rants, frustrations, and emotions (yours, not the character’s).
Why do you think this has happened? An unacceptable answer: because I’m a crummy writer. First off, it’s probably not true and secondly, it lets you off the hook for doing some hard thinking. Instead, pose questions like ‘Have I focused too much on the secondary characters?’ OR ‘Is the protagonist more acted upon (i.e. passive) than acting?’ OR ‘Are you trying to cover too much (since the cooling of the earth) or too little (not enough meat for a full story).’ Etc.
In a perfect world, how would the character/story turn out? Not necessarily just the ending, but also the feel, intent, theme of the piece.
To attain the perfect world, what writing needs to be created, revised, or dropped? Identify the scenes that are lacking in some way.
Is mastery of craft or failure of imagination standing in your way? If you don’t know how to achieve the desired effect technically, get writing coaching or tutoring. If your creativity seems to be on strike, take a stretch, a walk, a shower or a nap. Get away from the piece for a few minutes or if you must, a few days. If none of that works, toss the problem around with your writing group or a close friend.
Isn’t this a lot of work?
But what are your options? If you continue to slog along, convinced that you are writing junk, you might well talk yourself into stopping.
It does take time, so don’t backstory every problem you face. Pick the big one and work it through. That’s frequently enough to energize you and the story.
The big bonus of backstory is that it often provides fodder for new scenes. If the heroine is boring, thinking through how to deal with this can prompt ideas for exciting ways to address this.
There is one aspect of backstory which I think is a bit different. Next post.