7 Tips to Writing Character Backstories: Prepare the Cutting Room

Natsu, Goku, Monkey D. Luffy, Naruto, and Ichigo

John W. Howell asked: You have the most fabulous backstories and histories for your characters. what compels you to develop these backstories? Do you use all of the history and backstories or are some waiting to be employed?

Now, I have no real answer to the first part because the backstories just come out.  I enjoy doing character bios to get a feel for them before I do the outlines.  This is where a lot of my subplots come from too.  As far as the second question, I don’t use everything because some backstory points never get an opening to appear.  For example, Luke Callindor had a lot of childhood stories that got slipped in during Beginning of a Hero, but I cut them because they came out of nowhere and served no purpose.  You didn’t really need them to tell that Luke had a habit of getting into trouble.

This is a pretty sure post, so I’m making this a humorous list of tips for those who struggle with backstories.

  1. You don’t need to have it ready to got right away.  Sometimes, a backstory will appear naturally as the character goes through his adventure.  This can help explain skills, fears, and overall personality, which means you don’t have a hero or villain who comes off as someone who merely ‘appeared.
  2. Shared backstories can be a lot of fun, but you have to be careful.  If the two characters show no similarities in habits and culture that would stem from such a connection then it will fall flat.  You also don’t want it to be one-sided with only one character remembering and the other never acknowledging it.  This can be used as a subplot, but you need to give a reason for the avoidance.
  3. Just because you came up with a quirky backstory idea doesn’t mean you have to use it.  You need an opening for the revelation or it will come off as a pointless info dump that breaks the flow of a story.
  4. Don’t give everyone a tragic backstory.  After a while, the readers might question your own childhood.
  5. Amnesia is not always the answer when you can’t figure out a backstory.  Sure, it works for soap operas and whoever unmasks Spider-Man.  Seriously, why does the kid keep superheroing with the mask off?  Anyway, it’s easier to not mention a backstory than to claim the character forgot it.  Otherwise, you’ll have to come up with something later and it better be worth the wait.
  6. Much like homemade pudding, consistency is key.  Whatever backstory you start with has to be what you stick with.  Don’t start adding on ideas because they sound like neat twists.  For example, having a girl who claims to have never left her farm begin telling stories of travel is a mistake.  Sure, she could have gone to the market with her family to deliver goods, but the foundation is not that of an established world-traveler. The best you can do is say she read a lot of books, but that isn’t a replacement for experience.
  7. Those pieces of backstory that you cut because they didn’t fit in can still be used.  People enjoy seeing behind-the-scenes stuff, so putting this out on your blog or whatever social media you use can help gain interest.  You add depth to the character outside of the book, but many can understand why such a story didn’t make the cut when you published. This has actually become a popular method of getting readers or keeping a finished series going.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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26 Responses to 7 Tips to Writing Character Backstories: Prepare the Cutting Room

  1. L. Marie says:

    Great tips. So, when you’re coming up with a character’s bio, how far back do you go? Do you develop the character’s family tree too? How long does it take you to write a bio? When you think of incidents in the character’s history, do you write those stories?

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    • I don’t do much of a family tree. Usually just big events, what led them to the adventure, psychology, and physical traits. I don’t turn the incidents into stories though. That goes a bit too far for what I need since I’m focused on the current project.

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  2. This is a great post. I notice many times the backstory comes to me during the drafting phase. I’m glad you alluded to that, because I thought I was unique there. There is a talent to knowing what bits to include and exclude.

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  3. Terrific tips on Backstory, Charles. Thanks for fielding my question

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  4. Get post, I found your suggestions about using background thought provoking. One question for you, have you ever thought about taking the backstory that didn’t make the cut, rounding it into a story and releasing a ‘Forgotten Tales of Windmere’ book?

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  5. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this interesting post from the Legends of Windemere blog with 7 tips to writing character backstories.

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  6. Reblogged this on Claire Plaisted – Indie Author and commented:
    Tips for writing back stories

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  7. mrsnnnlight says:

    Great post, Charles!

    Like

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