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How to Make Room for an MC’s Backstory

Backstory is like baggage in a relationship.

Like a new lover or friend, every character and storyworld has baggage—I mean—backstory that affects:

  • who/what they are by the time readers meet them
  • their main goal
  • their motivations
  • how they go about making decisions, etc.

Some backstories are easier to handle than others. Some are quite pleasant in fact. But, regardless, each must be addressed. Otherwise, the relationship—the “story” and the character’s role within it—implodes.

Key Question: How/When to address it?

Overview of the kinds:

*Note: There are definitely more, but I’ve narrowed it down to these four main categories for todayClear on Chronological Order / “When” It HappensCan Feel Random / Out of Place / Not the Right Time
Can Decrease Momentum1. Prologue/
First Pages.
2. Flashbacks.
Generally Preserves Momentum3. Prequels.4. Dialogue/
Thoughts.

1. Prologue / First Pages.

Add the backstory to the beginning

Pros:

  • Chronological order (generally easier to understand how the plot points are related to each other).
  • Can establish why the rest of the story is even happening if the backstory was a key cause.

Cons:

  • Not always the most engaging place to start (ex. not what the story is about).
  • We don’t care enough about the characters yet to want to know what they’ve been through in the past. We want to know what they’re going through in the here-and-now!

2. Flashbacks.

Add the backstory at key moments

Pros:

  • Excel when they serve the story, complement the incoming mood, and are relevant.
  • Appear in many forms: in-scene moments; whole chapters; parallel plot lines; subtle changes in tenses; etc.

Cons:

  • Pause the plot from moving forward since the story/character is looking back to remember/reflect.
  • Can detour too much and too far from the track of the main plot.

3. Prequel.

Make the backstory its own book, film, game, etc.

Pros:

  • Chronological order (generally easier to immediately understand how the events are related to each other).
  • Fully shows and tells why certain characters/worlds/events are the way they are.
  • Establishes its own unique journey.

Cons:

  • Risks creating inconsistencies with the characters/worldbuilding/logic of the already established stories.
  • Can become unnecessary fillers.

4. Dialogue / Thoughts.

Mention the backstory in hindsight

Pros:

  • Brief snippets and mentions that are relevant and engaging, just like what triggered them.
  • Generally preserves the story’s momentum.
  • Immediately adds layers to a given moment, dialogue, action beat, etc.

Cons:

  • Can seem clumsy, random, disruptive, unnecessary, or contrived if not done well.

~*~

TIPS AND TRICKS

Let the backstory work for you!

Prologue/First Pages:

  • Keep it short.

Flashbacks:

  • Pay attention to how you flow in and out of a flashback.
  • Be careful of flashbacks within flashbacks, as they can confuse readers.

Prequel:

  • Let it be its own journey that leads to where the established story starts.
  • Keep continuity.

Dialogue/Thoughts:

  • Let it be relevant, necessary, and brief.

~*~

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER

Don’t force the backstory in

  • Is it relevant to what is currently happening in the story?
  • Is it necessary for the story, or are you just self-indulging?
  • Are you giving away too much?
  • Is it being revealed too soon? As in, does it have to be included “here”?
  • Are you using backstory to info-dump?
  • If you omitted it, would the scene and story not make sense and fall apart?
  • Is there a more fitting way to reveal it?
  • Are you trying to spoon-feed readers and fill in too many gaps for them?

~*~

Isabelle Felix Edits | IsabelleFelixEdits@gmail.com

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