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.


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.

How to Construct Round Characters


Do your characters go through transformations from the beginning of your story to the end? Do you find yourself, as you’re writing, discovering deeper layers of your characters’ personality even you didn’t know existed?

You may have, without even realizing it, created a round character.

Awhile ago we wrote about why a story with both flat and round characters is important, and how to create the ideal flat character. Now we’ll focus on round characters, and why a good story needs them.

What is a round character?

A round character, in comparison to a flat character, is more complex. He or she goes through some kind of development or shift from start to finish.

Usually, a round character is a main character in a story who deals directly with the plot’s major conflict and is changed because of it. Ron, Harry and Hermione are all round characters in J. K. Rowling’s book series. From the beginning of each book to its end, as well as the series as a whole, each character is, in many ways, completely different than where they began.

Why does a story need character development?

We tell stories for many reasons. We read stories for many, many more. A story exists to give its reader a cast of people, fictional or real, to relate to even in the smallest of ways. A story where someone deals with a major tragedy and doesn’t grow or learn from it isn’t a realistic story. It doesn’t give the reader any hope in handling their own personal tragedies.

As a writer, it’s essential to be able to show that any conflict and resolution will be accompanied by change. That is what we, as humans, want to see in the real world, and when we don’t, we often turn to stories to feed our desires. It’s not a bad thing. In fact, things characters do in the stories we love might even be able to motivate us to promote change in our own surroundings.

How to give a character depth

  • Scatter smaller conflicts underneath a story’s umbrella issue. It’s very rare we’re dealing with only one thing at a time. There are usually multiple things tugging at the back of our minds at once, which usually leads to some form of a breakdown or decision to make a change. A college student juggling too many interests might decide to completely change her major.
  • Compare and contrast relationship dynamics. How we act around our friends might be completely different from how we carry ourselves in front of our families. Make an effort to show how one character handles different relationships in her life and how each contributes to her personality, emotional state, etc.
  • Don’t forget the tipping point. A story, just like real life, will probably have a few ‘tipping points’ before the actual climax of the story unfolds. This shows your character inching closer and closer to that climax. If the turning point of your story is like a car breaking down, a tipping point leading up to that might be the engine light turning on, causing your character to snap in frustration at the Starbucks barista, leading to her questioning her sanity, etc., etc.

To show that major change in your characters throughout your stories requires a lot of time and effort and many different writers’ tools. This is why learning to write better stories as you refine your skills is a long, tough process. But the more you write, the more chances you have to develop these skills, which always leads to better writing. Always.

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.

Can Things Our Characters Do Motivate Us to Do Things, Too?


Rhyming titles aside, this is a question inspired by a member of NaNoWriMo’s Facebook group. “Does anyone else find the characters you write motivate you to do things in real life?” she wants to know. I’m giving her all the credit for what has become of this random rant even though I don’t have her permission to use her name (sorry).

It got me thinking though. Do they?

Think about your favorite MCs. They’re never just your average nobody (well, sometimes they start out that way). A story with believable characters can’t exist without progressive character development, because everyone grows and changes when they come face-to-face with a problem and have to, at some point, stumble into its resolution. Your favorite characters are probably the ones who do some pretty awesome stuff to get to where they need to go, or defeat whichever villain they’re battling, or whatever.

What happens when you’re reading a book, and a character overcomes an obstacle you’ve been trying to figure a way around for months? You’re inspired. You suddenly want to put that book down, get up and go crush your real-life obstacle with no fear. Sometimes you can. Sometimes you can’t. But that character’s actions have successfully motivated you to, in some way or another, change your life.

The same thing can happen when we’re writing. Often, unintentionally, our characters end up fighting battles we’re very familiar with, because it is our first instinct to turn to topics and situations we know well in order to draw from our experiences and fuel our prose. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, as long as we expand our horizons every now and again, too. Putting our characters through the same things we went through adds an emotional component we can’t help but infuse into our stories.

When our characters conquer their demons, whatever form that takes on in your current project, we are satisfied, and therefore our readers probably will be, too. If we want our readers to feel motivated to do something positive in real life, in response to something a character has done, we should be able to feel it too.

And then this question comes to mind: why do we write characters that do things that motivate us to do things?

It’s very difficult to write dull characters. Sometimes you have to, maybe it’s just their personality and they’re a foil to your vibrant MC. But I think a lot of times we tend to write inspiring characters because we want to feel inspired, too. We feel good when our characters accomplish something big. It makes us want to stop writing for a second (gasp!) and go accomplish something big, too, right here, right now.

Being inspiring by being inspired? Being inspired to inspire? Just roll with the inspiration and see where it takes you.

Love&hugs, Meg<3

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.

Meg is a twenty-something workaholic with a passion for writing, coffee and health. In addition to her status as an aspiring novelist and Grammar Nazi, Meg is the managing editor at College Lifestyles magazine and a guest blogger for Food & Nutrition Magazine.  She is a seven-time NaNoWriMo winner and has written several creative pieces for Teen Ink. Follow Meg on Twitter. 

The Battle Against Identity and Purpose


Do you know who your characters are? More importantly, do they?

Identity is a common YA theme. If you’ve survived the deep fiery hell known as adolescence you can much better understand why. It can even take a lifetime to figure out who you are, or who you want to be.

But at least, growing up, you can discover who you don’t want to be.

I never intended for identity to become such a deep-rooted theme in my book. It’s part of the mysterious element of the entire series, actually. The sci-fi element comes in when the villain figures out how to disguise himself to look and sound like anyone he wants to, with the help of some government technology meant for, of course, a completely different purpose. But that doesn’t come in until after the prequel.

Yes, one of my characters has a twin. Spoiler alert.

Yes, there are questions about who is related to whom.

But mostly, the story revolves around five teenagers who think they have their lives all figured out until a contest is announced, one that, if they win, will get them out of conducting an honors project and guarantee them what is the equivalent of one of us being accepted into college without having to apply.

It’s not what they think it will be. As you can probably guess.

It changes daily, but at this point my favorite character is probably Lucas, who is so shy around other people he never speaks. He and the narrator become friends after she defends him against his big bad bullies. She can never convince him to tell her why he stopped talking. Oh, she also saves his life on multiple occasions, but no big deal.

The events following the isn’t-what-it-seems competition don’t just change Lucas; they change each of the characters, mostly helping them come to terms with their futures and how they want to contribute to their society. That, of course, sets the stage for the subsequent books, which fast-forward 17 years. Go figure.

Then it gets even more fun, with an unidentified villain taking the places of different characters at unknown intervals.

But I can’t go back to writing those yet. I have to finish what I start.

The hardest part is taking elements of stories we’ve all read before and creating something new out of them. New identity struggles. New revelations.

Such as, which twin really jumped into the river?

Has Ollia’s mother really been missing all this time?

Who is Charles?!

Oops, sorry. Wrong story.

Love&hugs, Meg<3

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.

A recent graduate with a B.A. in English and a completed major in nutrition, currently seeking a graduate degree in health communication, Meg is a twenty-something workaholic with a passion for writing, coffee and dietetics. In addition to her status as an aspiring novelist and Grammar Nazi (and the mastermind behind this site), Meg is an editor for College Lifestyles magazine and a guest blogger for Food & Nutrition Magazine’s Stone Soup.  She is a seven-time NaNoWriMo winner and has written several creative pieces for Teen Ink magazine. Follow Meg on Twitter.

Why I Rewrote My Main Character’s Father, Who Now Reminds Me of My Own


He was a terrible father.

No, not my dad. I couldn’t have asked for a better paternal parent, which is one reason the first few drafts of my book just didn’t sit right with me.

I mean my main character’s father. The original version.

As writers we’re supposed to be able to imagine realities beyond our own experiences, while somehow still relying on our pasts to maintain just an ounce of realism. So I should be able to, in the unpredictable abyss that is my brain, sculpt and form a father figure who is nothing like the one I know.

I suppose I could have kept trying. But I couldn’t bear to keep him once I decided, for the first or fourth or ten millionth time (I’ve lost count), to start the story over again.

Ollia’s father used to be bitter and betrayed and controlling, but instead he’s now hard-working and loving. The issue is, of course, that love is trivial in this story, and to love someone means giving up your freedom and giving way to misery.

It’s complicated. But he’s still something like my dad.

The first memories I have of my dad involve books. He used to read to me all the time, and that’s how I fell in love with them and became the literary maniac I am today (I’m not ashamed). Ollia and her father also connect through reading, their main source of communication and understanding once the character named Kathyrine disappears.

Fortunately I love talking to my dad. I can’t imagine only having one virtually speechless thing in common. As I’ve grown up, and now that I’ve become more accustomed to this whole young adult thing and spend a ridiculous amount of time at home (groan), I’ve realized how much the two of us are alike. I know what kinds of things he would like as gifts. I know what will make him laugh. I know to leave the room if I’m about to cry, because it makes him sad, too.

Ollia’s father started out as an awful, mean-spirited, no-nonsense fragment of a human being who blamed everyone but himself for the absence of Kathyrine. He has become one of my favorite characters to write about. At a point when she is forced to grow up, they understand each other in a way only the love between a father and a daughter can birth.

No. I couldn’t bear to reverse that once the idea came to me. The original character, he doesn’t belong in this story. Another one, someday. Maybe.

There will be literary father figures that disappoint, that hate, that harm, that fail. But not this one.

I think first I have to pay tribute to the real-life dad who has been anything but awful toward me since day one, who taught me how to ride a bike and paint a picture and believe in myself. Who told me I could be a writer even though most writers don’t make a living and I’m not that good at it and I’m still living in his house.

I still forget to turn the lights off when I leave a room, and I hog the coffee and I know we don’t spend enough time together and it’s my fault. But he still loves me.

How do I know?

Because there are memories I’m holding onto now, memories that inspire me to write posts like this even when I’d rather be writing a book.

Love&hugs, Meg<3

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.

A recent graduate with a B.A. in English and a completed major in nutrition, currently seeking a graduate degree in health communication, Meg is a twenty-something workaholic with a passion for writing, coffee and dietetics. In addition to her status as an aspiring novelist and Grammar Nazi (and the mastermind behind this site), Meg is an editor for College Lifestyles magazine and a guest blogger for Food & Nutrition Magazine’s Stone Soup.  She is a seven-time NaNoWriMo winner and has written several creative pieces for Teen Ink magazine. Follow Meg on Twitter.

How to Create a Cast of Diverse Characters


While 90 seconds is the perfect amount of time to refine your writing skills while multi-tasking, it’s not always enough time to explain more complex pieces of writing advice in detail.

As promised, we’re going to expand on some of the tips we shared in last week’s 90 Second Writing Lesson, starting with creating diverse characters in your stories.

The last thing you want to do is create a “cast” that has everything in common and behaves identically. Here are three ways to make sure your characters match people you might meet IRL—people who don’t always have the same way of doing things, but are (sometimes) okay to hang out with nonetheless.

They might even, maybe, turn an otherwise lifeless tale into a story that leaps off the page.

Mix and match their interests and hobbies

Not every character you write about should have the exact same set of interests. If you’re writing about a group of friends, it’s likely they all do have a common hobby—maybe they all like reading John Green. But think realistically. Some of them are also going to like sports, and some won’t. The more contrast you have between them, the more “interesting” your story will be.

One way to appeal to a broader audience is to create characters that more people can relate to. But the main reason you should mix it up is because, later, their varying interests might come in handy (and you don’t even know it yet).

Choose personality types that compliment one another

In your story, you need the quiet one, the obnoxious one, the know-it-all, the extrovert, the I-hate-everything—realistically, that’s what you’ll find if you direct a large mass of strangers into one room and keep them there.

Similarly, your characters are going to know or become acquainted with personalities they can relate to and those they can’t stand. Again, there’s audience appeal here: but also, it’s a good idea to highlight specific traits by providing foils—characters that represent the complete opposite of each other.

If you want to show someone is a total jerk, compliment him with a character that can literally do no wrong. This emphasis makes both of them stand out, and helps the reader pay more attention to whatever relative significance you have in mind.

Give them a common goal to work toward

Often, characters who display varying strengths and weaknesses unknowingly possess the qualifications to “team up” and solve a problem. This doesn’t mean you have to write about a bunch of superheroes to prove a point. Think of Alaska or Paper Towns (if you’ve read them). Those characters didn’t accomplish anything exceptional, but they found a task and went after it—together.

Each character should have something unique, yet equally vital, to contribute to the main plot points of the story.

Let’s say your YA novel takes place toward the end of senior year, and a group of honors students wants to join together to pull off the ultimate senior prank. There’s going to be someone good at logistics and planning, and someone who wants to stand back with the camera and record all the magic as it happens.

No one person can do every job, and even if your characters never become life-long friends, they need each other to make it work.

Simple examples here, but you get the idea. There’s a good reason stories don’t involve just one character. Especially if there’s a narrator, you need other incoming points of view, etcetera to make the story objective.

One person’s take on a series of events isn’t enough. You need other characters chiming in, reacting to things and “foiling,” if need be. It’s an element good stories simply can’t live without. To make a story real, to make it readable and entertaining, your characters all have an important job—and it’s up to you to make sure they do it well.

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.

How to Construct Flat Characters


You probably remember learning about round versus flat characters way back in English class (er … maybe it wasn’t so far back for you. Lucky, lucky you). If you’ve filed that lesson away with all the other seemingly useless info you were forced to regurgitate in high school, it’s time to pull it back out.

Believe it or not, many of the things you learned in English, or language arts or whatever your education system called it, related to writing more than you realized at the time.

Characters who are “flat” are just as important to your stories as round ones. We’ll show you how—but first, let’s travel back to the basics for a second.

What Are Flat and Round Characters?

In a story, round characters are the ones that undergo significant development from the beginning of a story to the end. Your main character, for example, is usually changed somehow by events that occur or by reflecting on past events through narrative.

Flat characters, by contrast, do not change. That’s why we think of them as two-dimensional. We can also think of them as catalysts, if you’re more of a science-y thinker: while they still contribute to a story’s plotline, they aren’t changed by it. They stay the same from start to finish—someone who is cranky at the beginning of a story because of bad weather will still be just as cranky at the end.

Why Do Stories Need Both?

Think about real life. You come in contact with random people every day—sitting next to strangers on the train or subway, passing people on the street, buying coffee from a barista you only ever meet once. Not every single person you encounter in your lifetime is going to make a significant impact on the course of your future.

The same goes for stories. Main characters, whom the story focuses on, go through changes because that’s part of the story being told. The flat characters they come in contact with matter, but especially if they meet in passing, their changes occur off the page and outside the storyline. We just don’t see them. That doesn’t mean those characters aren’t still important.

We’ll go into more detail in the next section. 

How Do We Create Flat Characters?

Flat characters interact with round characters in big and small ways, sometimes maybe not even directly. As we mentioned above, though, it’s just like real life. They need to exist. One way to emphasize their importance is to introduce them, leave them in the back of your readers’ minds for a while, then bring them back. Here’s an example.

Let’s go back to our cranky-about-the-weather example. We’ll call him Greg (another ancient inside joke—if you remember this one you’ve been following this blog far too long for your own good). Greg hates rain. He gripes at anyone passing by about how he hopes they have a terrible day as he wades through puddles.

Enter our MC, Larry. Larry is a very unhappy, lonely guy. When he passes Greg on his way to work, and Greg tells him to have a terrible day, Larry spins around and gets into an argument with him. Then as the story progresses, Larry becomes significantly happier and less lonely. He remembers how it feels to be sad and alone even though he isn’t anymore. So at the end of the story, he passes Greg on the street again. This time when Greg tells him to have a terrible day, he tells Greg he hopes he has an extraordinary day, and walks away. The end.

This might mean a lot to Greg. He might go on to change his attitude, too. But we don’t need to see that. Because we don’t, that makes Greg our flat character. The reason Greg is important is because, through these two interactions, we see the effects of the significant changes Larry has undergone from the beginning of the story to the end. That’s important. Without Greg, this point becomes far less significant.

This is just one way to do it. You could end up writing in a flat character that also happens to be your MC’s best friend, who is there throughout most of the book. No two stories are a like: there is no right, wrong, better or worse way to construct a flat character. It’s not the character that matters as much as their interaction with the round characters in the story.

Round and flat characters need each other. You’ve probably constructed both types in your own stories before, maybe without realizing that’s what you were doing. Now you know: the strategy makes your character development symbolize more than just an attitude adjustment. It shows your readers, without telling them, that everything your MC has gone through matters. Even passing a cranky weather-hater on the street.

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.