Craft Intensive: Building Backstory

As a couple of my fellow Pennies can tell you, I love to do a deep dive on characters’ feelings and motivations. In fact, one of my favorite things to do while writing and critiquing is to explore and uncover why the characters act the way they do.

I’m also a firm believer in that old adage that the easiest way to know what someone is going to do in the future is to look at what they’ve done in the past.

But until recently, I never managed to put those two ideas together in my writing! As much as I love the behavior analysis part of penning a novel, I have been leaving a huge chunk of motivation on the table: Backstory.

It’s not that I’ve been ignoring backstory. I actually like it quite a bit and enjoy imagining pre-novel scenes. But I haven’t always written down that backstory or given it much more than a cursory glance. It’s always been an under-developed, well-you-see-this-once-happened explanation available if someone asked.

But after Julie recommended Lisa Cron’s STORY GENIUS to me, I started paying a lot more attention to backstory in my books. And I’ve picked up some great new habits that — I hope! — are making my current WIP a much more emotionally engaging read.

  1. Write that backstory down. I used to be content to dream up a nice, somewhat vague backstory for my character — e.g./ “She’s watched her mom cut people out of their lives for little to no reason and she’s scared of that happening to her.” But with this draft, I’ve written out several scenes from her past that show her mom turning on their friends and family. The details that writing the scenes forced me to conjure up are helping me show my character’s fear so much more vividly, and they serve the dual purpose of propelling actions that are making my story zing.
  2. From STORY GENIUS: Find a moment that made your character believe something about the world that your novel’s story will prove wrong. Think Professor Snape. For almost the entire seven-book series, Harry believes that Professor Snape is evil. He has ample evidence for this belief — much of it circumstantial and misinterpreted — and for him, it is confirmed at nearly every turn. We even get to see memories of Snape’s boyhood that seem to confirm Harry’s suspicions. All of which makes it so deeply moving for us and for Harry when he learns the truth behind Snape’s actions late in the final book.
  3. Real people often take unexpected lessons from life events — so can your characters. A character whose mom died when he was thirteen could vow to remain a bachelor for life because he’s seen how painful it is to lose someone you love…or he could decide to become very religious because he believes his mom might have been saved if she had gone to church…or he could fervently wish to create his own family very young to make up for what he missed out on…or, or, or. Any one of a thousand reactions to that one event — losing his mother — is possible, which means you need to keep digging. What else was happening in his life at that time that shaped how he reacted? What kind of person was his mom, and how did she shape him while she was alive? What did he believe about the world before she died, and how did that death challenge that belief? Try to find the core belief that led your character to choose the specific lesson that makes him behave the way he does — and that belief will do a lot of heavy lifting to move your story forward.

As I’ve started incorporating backstory questions into my writing, I’ve found that not only does it mean I get to do more of what I love — exploring character motivation! — but it is also helping me improve my much weaker area of plot development.

Because if the truest predictor of future behavior is past behavior, then knowing your characters’ backstory backwards and forwards will help you know exactly what they’re going to do next.

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