Why Your Characters Need A Backstory

How do you get to know someone you’ve just met?

You ask questions, and if you really want to know them you ask a lot of questions.

We become interested and invested in others when we know more about them. Learning about someone (i.e. Discovering where they’re from, their ideals, beliefs, etc.) is imperative in making a connection with him or her. It is this connection that enables us to feel for someone.

Asking, listening, learning is the precursory actions to empathy. When we are able to have compassion for another because we have taken the time to learn about them, understand, and know their story then we are able to bond ourselves to that other person. Be it a working relationship, a friendship or a marriage.

An individual’s past is a large, and often the most significant, component of his or her narrative. Since we are shaped by the morals and lessons imparted to us in our formative years, our past is a large determinant of our present condition. We better understand and consequently know someone when we know about their past.

In fiction, learning about a character’s past and the various attributions that contributed to the formation of his or her personality, actions, and emotions are called a backstory.

Before I expound upon the importance of a character’s backstory, let me again pose a question. Have you ever read a book and by the end felt nothing for the characters? No sympathy for their pain, no compassion for their missteps, no remorse for their loss. Now, did you question why?

How can one read a novel of any considerable length, one in which you journey with a character for a couple hundred pages and feel nothing? Barring that the writing was terrible or that the plot was disjointed, it is most likely that you felt nothing because you were given nothing.

What a reader needs to connect to, understand, and feel for a character is the knowledge of that character. This knowledge is given when the character’s backstory is presented.

In real life the onus is on you to learn about someone new, however in fiction it’s the author’s responsibility to give the information (i.e. backstory) about a character(s) to the reader.

The following is why your character needs a backstory.

Characters lie flat on a page until a writer breathes life into them. A work of fiction’s verve is dependent on a writers’ ability to impart their imagined beings with human characteristics. These recognizable traits are only established when a writer provides the reader with the character’s past—his or her losses, triumphs, pain and joy.

Presenting a backstory doesn’t mean that a writer has to belabor every detail of a character’s life but it does mean that the character should be fully formed enough to make the reader feel for him or her. A well-developed character cannot exist if the creation of this fictional person is one-dimensional.

The complexity of a character is intriguing and will always draw in your reader quicker and for longer than an embryonic character for which the reader wishes and waits to develop but disappointingly never does.

Another reason why a character’s backstory is imperative is because it gives your character what most people seek in others—depth.

The profundity of emotion lacks when given to an underdeveloped character. If a reader doesn’t understand why your character left her child or abused her elderly mother then it’s likely that the reader will lack understanding of the character’s choices, and worse, feel nothing for the subsequent affects on your character.

A writer must build empathy for his or her characters by placing a block of sympathy by a block of compassion compressed with love as the mortar—it is the foundation of any good, nay great, story.

It is important to remember that these great stories are not born only from plot.

Plot can only move forward upon the backs of the characters and if these characters are underdeveloped then the entire story lacks, lags and fails to impart the humanity that writers hope to imbue into their characters. After all, it is this humanness that gives a pulse to imagined beings.

What makes your characters real is the readers’ empathy for them. An empathy garnered with a well developed, finely executed backstory.

Finally, the value of giving your characters a backstory is that gives texture to the overarching story. What elevates a good work of fiction to a great work of fiction is the multidimensional layers of the characters that draw in readers making them wish to live inside the pages long after the last one is turned.

Write on, friends.

Thank you for reading. I look forward to your comments.

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About Sherry Parnell