7 Strategies for Writing Compelling Character Backstories
Learn how to craft the history of your character's lives before they ever appear on the page.
Readers connect with the characters in a book based on how real and engaging they are. To create a compelling character, authors need to understand what drives their character’s motivations. What key events shaped their point of view on the world?
Crafting a new character’s backstory is an essential part of writing a book, and is more involved than choosing their hair color or selecting a personality quirk. The life a character leads before the events of a book helps form their personality, can influence key plot points, and likely shapes the direction their character development will take over the course of the book / series. Disseminating this information within the pages of a book is a fine balancing act between revealing a character’s past and keeping the present action moving along.
What is a Character Backstory?
Often considered part of the world building process, a good backstory includes more than the obvious aspects of your character, like their family, physical appearance, and occupation. While this background information is important, the backstory delves deeper.
Backstory is what happens in your character’s history before they appear on the page for the first time. This dossier is a thorough overview of a character’s background, values, major past events, circumstances, and reactions, making it a crucial part of the creation process. This data can be a formative event like a mentor’s impactful death, or a smaller trait like a distrust of cats because one scratched up the character as a child. These intimate details shape your characters and make them feel like real people to your readers. They make your characters memorable and help build a three-dimensional character with authentic feelings, opinions, and motivations. This history forms the characters’ behavior and personality.
For example, in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet forms an opinion of the gentry of society based on how her family has been treated as they sink closer and closer to poverty. She aligns her values to those of the military more than the gentleman of Netherfield, who are actually of her class structure, which influences her opinion. Therefore, by the time Mr. Darcy snubs her at the ball, she’s primed to consider him “insufferable.”
Knowing the background of your character helps you and readers understand the motivations that drive the players in your book to make choices or not make choices. Even if you don’t reveal all of your characters’ backstory in your books, fleshing out a backstory helps you as a writer with a character’s emotional arc. With an understanding of what makes a character, you bring them to life on the page and readers want to get behind them.
Tips to Create a Backstory for Your Character
Ask yourself why your character takes the actions they take, makes the decisions they make, reacts to specific situations in the way they do. Focus on what earlier experiences influence the character and why they make an impression. Why do they have a dislike for cats? Were they scratched by one at a young age? Or does the local barn cat always steal their favorite chair as their afternoon nap station?
Delve into their psyche by discovering their character archetype. An archetype is a broad character profile that represents specific aspects of human nature. These common traits are recognizable and resonate with readers. They are types of personalities that repeat and persist across time and space.
Pro-Tip: For more details on archetypes and enneagrams, check out Building a Character: Finding Inspiration.
Draw inspiration from the familiar
Just like it’s hard to describe a hummingbird if you’ve never seen one, crafting a backstory that is completely unfamiliar to you might be a taxing endeavor. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive to include characters with diverse backstories. However, not every aspect of their personalities and experiences has to be new to you.
They say “write what you know” for a reason. A fictional character can be inspired by the histories or personalities of real people. Drawing on details from people you know, your own life, or well-documented figures in the public eye can be not only a source of inspiration but also a wealth of details you don’t have to piece together. By picking experiences grounded in reality, you can create characters that are anchored to the everyday, are authentic, and are believable.
Tyler Jenkins-Reid states The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was inspired by Elizabeth Taylor, who was married seven times, Rita Hayworth, who had a Spanish background but was influenced to change her name, and Ava Gardner, who revealed secrets about her pasts to a journalist who then wrote her biography.
Build a timeline
Ever watch a detective show and they have a whiteboard with key times of the crime mapped out? Do the same for the players in your book. Consider the main events of your character’s life and jot them down in a linear fashion.
Why create a timeline? Because, once complete, you have a bird’s eye view of your character’s life cycle. This can help with identifying potential plot holes, and showcase opportunities for foreshadowing. Once you see the events of your character’s formative years before you, they start to feel more real and that helps you create authenticity.
When creating a timeline, it’s possible to do it from different directions. Some authors may have a clear picture of who a character is at the start of the novel, then work backwards to determine a backstory that explains how they got that way. Other authors have a few clear ideas for what happened in a character’s past, and extrapolate from that information the kind of person the character would be during the novel. An author may use both approaches, varying it for each character based on the information they already have before doing additional brainstorming.
In your timeline, Include items like:
Birthdate and year
Physical Appearance Changes
Impactful relationships (parent’s death, meeting significant others, birth of a child etc)
Shifts in perspective or beliefs
Major milestones that shape your character, both before and during your story timeframe
Character beginning and end point
Pro-tip: Choose 5 defining moments in your character’s life that influence the story. They can be happy or sad, happen in your book or before the opening scene. Each must influence the main character, pushing or pulling them toward or away from their destiny. In Nevernight by Jay Kristoff, Mia is defined by each death she experiences, either by her hand or another’s.
Keep track of details
With a timeline laid out, it’s time to flesh out additional details of your character’s personality. These traits may feed back into the events you have so far to generate even more backstory ideas. Store these facts in an easily accessible location to reference as you write. Trust me, documenting these details as you decide on them will become more and more important as you delve into the book. There may come a day, deep into the back half of the book, where you can’t quite remember whether the tattoo on your heroine is on her right or left shoulder.
Some details to include are:
Names, nicknames, and name meanings
Age and Date of Birth
Siblings, Parents, Children, Friends
Physical characteristics (Hair, skin, eye color, heritage etc.)
Unique characteristics. (Do they wear glasses, have a tattoo, always wear tennis shoes)
Likes and dislikes
Quirks, flaws, and strengths
Romantic relationships, past or present. (Did they have a nasty break-up?)
Speech and communication methods (Do they text or call first? Do they talk with their hands?)
Their jobs, or how they earn income
Their hobbies (Roleplaying games, creative writing in the form of trope-heavy anime-inspired short stories, etc.)
Social media platforms they have
Role in a group dynamic. (Are they a leader or a follower, joker or walking encyclopedia?)
Introvert or Extravert
Fears, hopes, dreams
Character Arc. (What change happens to them from the beginning of the book compared to the end?)
Pro Tip: There are a plethora of templated Character Detail Sheets you can find online. Dabble claims to have “The Best Character Template Ever” but you need to document it somewhere. Plottr has detailed character profiles integrated within their app, making them easy to fill out and access when needed. You can even upload images for each character.
Highlight relevant details
Your characters didn’t pop out of thin air. They most likely lived full lives before readers meet them. When J.K. Rowling introduces readers to Harry Potter in Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone, we’re give a glimpse into a life that is full of traumatic events. He lives in a cupboard under the stairs. He has a lightning shaped scar. He’s bullied by his cousin. His parents are dead. At first, these details, to the reader, add color to Harry’s world, but in subsequent books, they become important and useful details.
However, note that in the first book we don't get all of Harry’s backstory. Readers are not subjected to every detail in the life of “the boy who lived.” We don’t learn about his ability to speak to snakes until The Chamber of Secrets. Choosing where and when to expose relevant character backstory is as important as the details themselves. Too early and readers might disengage as they feel they’ve discovered all the secrets and have no need to read on. Too late and readers will feel disappointed or cheated if the reveals are not hinted at or important enough.
The key here is to find a balance between relevant details slipped into the story at the right time to pique reader interest, and info dumping that drags down the pace.
Show, don’t tell
How do you avoid info dumps that leave readers bored, have them skimming or skipping paragraphs, or worse, putting your book away? This age-old idiom encourages writers to find ways to weave in a character’s backstory through dialogue, actions, emotions and sensory details. Make the reader see the backstory, not read it. Imagine yourself before a canvas. How would you paint a picture with words to describe the backstory you want to tell?
In Red Rising by Pierce Brown, Darrow’s backstory on the Red planet is told through the events of his wife singing a song. We learn how the tune is a form of protest (it’s illegal), how life was on Mars before, and how it is now. And we learn the consequences of standing up for what is right in Darrow’s world.
Beware of Flashbacks
Popular in screenwriting (particularly serialized television), flashbacks involve skipping time and taking the audience back to a younger version of the characters to reveal backstory, either as a memory or as a dream. It can be a convenient and engaging way to provide backstory and contextualize events in the present day. These scenes are inserted into the main story, interrupting the main flow of events. However, if overused, these jumps in time can confuse or overwhelm your readers if not handled properly.
If a flashback is essential, ensure it is short and to the point, a page or two at the most. Make the scene exciting, drawing readers in and reveal compelling information.
Some authors like to place these sequences in italics as a way of signifying they are from the past. The difficulty here is that italics are meant to emphasize but not be used in large blocks of text. Some readers may have difficulty processing these sections, others may skip over them, deeming them unimportant. Backstory revelations must serve a purpose, and if readers don’t get the information, they will be dissatisfied with your book.
A stronger tactic is to integrate the essential facts into dialogue between two or more characters. Perhaps the main character is hearing their parents or roommates discussing the inciting incident. Or the character themselves may reveal the story. This latter option also serves the purpose of showing to the readers that the character telling the story has grown closer to the other character, placing trust in them by revealing such intimate details.
If you must use flashbacks, make them do the heavy lifting. In Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice, a combination of both conversation and flashback are used. Told in two timelines, the present and the past, flashbacks are the crux of the book and become the storytelling style.
Looking Backward to Move Forward
Backstory is more than a few details to spruce up your characters. It’s a deep dive into the personality and motivations of your characters, bringing them to life and infusing them with authenticity. These lived experiences help craft a compelling character and bolster key plot points. Readers will connect with these well-drawn characters, making it difficult to put a book down.