I recently started revisiting one of my WIP and as I was reading I realized that my story starts off super slow. Like, I haven’t even brought up the major point of conflict and I’m seven chapters in. I was thinking of all the stuff I needed to cut out and realized that it wasn’t unnecessary. I had inadvertently written my main characters backstory.
Look at me doing good things as a writer without realizing it. Knowing a characters backstory is important for you as the writer. I invited Meghan Herbert, the author of Sentenced to Writing to write a post on backstory for you guys. This is something that she talked a lot about during the early weeks of our writing group.
Put Your Behind in the Past
Once upon a time there was a terrible bad guy who wanted to do terrible bad guy things. There was only one thing standing in his way: he had no clue why he wanted to do bad things.
There is nothing worse than getting knee-deep into a story and finding out you have no idea why the villain is doing things. This glaring problem stopped my writing progress for months. I had a great story idea, and awesome characters to go with it, but I could not figure out what was motivating my villain to want to destroy the world. Without that piece I couldn’t make any progress on my story.
Who even is this guy?
In the years that I’d been working on this story, I had neglected to think about what happened to all of my characters before they are introduced. Those experiences (still yet undiscovered) played a major role in the characters’ decision making. This was glaringly obvious when it came to my villain. I needed him to want to destroy the world. That was the crux of my whole story. All of the other characters were responding to this threat of world destruction. But no one knew why, not even the villain himself.
To solve this problem I knew that I had to go further back in my story and live the life of my villain, before he was the villain. I had to learn what happened in his past to make him want to destroy the world.
I am a plotter, an outliner, a follow-the-yellow-brick-road-that-I-planned-out-for-a-decade-er. I do not do well with discovery writing (or pantsing, whatever you crazy people call it). My characters don’t just go on side quests and journey willy-nilly through my story deciding they want a life different than what I planned. I know exactly where they need to go and have planned how they are going to get there, and they fall in line (or I rewrite them until they do).
My normal method did not work for this exercise. I had to go against every tendency I had to just discover this character. To learn how he thought and why he chose to do things. I would write something for him, and then delete it because I could just tell that it wasn’t authentic to him.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Thirty pages later I knew my villain, and discovered that his tragic origins that would make any sane person make the same choices he did. He wasn’t sane anymore, of course, but now his choices made sense.
Once I learned what I needed to, I stopped writing his story. I will probably finish it someday, but having his story fully written isn’t why I wrote his backstory. I wrote because I needed to know his “why”. That giant motivator that nothing could sway. Once I learned why he was trying to destroy the world, my main story was ready to move forward.
Why a Backstory Matters
When you are finding that, no matter what you do, your story isn’t going anywhere, take a look at your characters. Really look at them. Are they a unique character that makes choices that feel real? Does their reaction to things make sense for the life they’ve lived? Are there stakes in your story that your characters can’t just walk away from without any consequences?
If you aren’t sure of your answers to those questions, dive into their past. Write a little bit of the story that got them to where they are now. I can promise that your current work will only improve when you get a fuller understanding of the characters you are writing about.
Once upon a time there was a terrible bad guy, who wanted revenge on the monsters that created him. He hated the life he was forced to live, but would do anything in his power to avoid dying, even if it meant burning the world to ash.
Make sure to check out her blog, she has some great thoughts, and small short stories she’s done. I’ve learned a ton working with her in my writing group over the last two years.
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Reading your article helped me a lot and I agree with you. But I still have some doubts, can you clarify for me? I’ll keep an eye out for your answers.
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