How Much Back Story Does Your Character Need?

Does your reader really need to know everything about every character? Be mindful of how much back story you reveal.

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Let me start off by saying: I know I don’t have a very popular opinion on this topic. If you don’t agree, or have more to add, I want to encourage you to visit our Facebook page and start a conversation there.

Have you ever finished reading a book and thought, “I really wish I’d gotten to know that character a little better”? Sometimes, this is on purpose. As much as you think you’ll be satisfied by knowing every single detail of a story, in reality, it’s much more satisfying to wonder. You just don’t always know it.

Characterization is complicated. Writers have to learn how to reveal just enough about a character at a time to keep a story moving forward. They also have to learn how much they actually need to reveal about a character’s past, and when it’s okay not to give as much back story as their readers might think they want.

Here’s a quick guide to assessing how much back story your characters need to reveal.

What would more details reveal about a significant personality trait?

Back story, flashbacks or explanations as to why a certain character has reached a certain point in the present, should always serve a purpose. Perhaps you have a character who gets really upset when someone puts milk instead of cream in their morning coffee. You can explain the story behind small details like that, if you want to … as long as they tell the reader, overall, why that character doesn’t just get upset over coffee, but gets upset over all kinds of small mishaps.

However, things like this can be explained in one sentence by a supporting character, or the story can launch into a chapter-long flashback that pulls the reader right into a scene in the past. Which one you choose depends on what’s necessary for your story specifically. There is no right or wrong way in general. There is only a strategic way for your story in particular.

Could the major plot still function without it?

Back story isn’t just a fancy form of fluff writers can use to bulk up and round out their stories. Each form of back story – prologue, flashback, monologue, etcetera – serves a different purpose, and if you’re trying to decide whether or not you need it to complete a story, try outlining the story without it. Leave out that prologue or significantly trim down that monologue. Can your story stand alone without it?

If so, leave it out, or at least keep it short. If there’s going to be more than one book, don’t reveal everything right away. It’s okay to keep a reader guessing.

Would you keep it in if it weren’t for your readers?

Keep in mind that we don’t just write for other people: we write for ourselves just as much. Sometimes we find ourselves writing, or not writing, specific scenes or background because we’re way too concerned about what our readers will think.

There is a time and a place for this. If you work with an editor after the first few drafts, and he or she thinks you need to reveal more to the reader, he or she will say so. But if there are certain secrets you want to keep to yourself, at least for now, don’t feel like you have to reveal them just because your readers might be upset if you don’t. During your first drafts, do what you want. Do what you feel is right. If you think revealing too much back story will take away from the story, don’t.

Sometimes we just don’t need to know everything about a character. Enough to explain what the reader needs to understand in order to grasp the main theme and motifs of the story, and nothing more. Let your readers make assumptions, guess things, question a character’s actions.

These are the things that keep them interested and curious long after they’ve finished reading the story. If you give them everything they want, when they finish reading, the conversation stops. A good book stimulates, not stifles, conversation. Part of your mission as a writer should be to stimulate discussion about your book, and if that means you have to keep some secrets for yourself, it’s certainly a sacrifice worth making.

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.

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