Why Backstory Makes for Boring Characters
by Jason Black
If you’re my kind of
writer, you’ve probably spent hours on understanding who your
characters are. You may have worked up your characters’ histories
in endless detail. You may know what their first job was, who their
first kiss was with, and what it is that they secretly want to be
when they grow up. You’ve done it so you can understand what makes
these people tick, what their emotional baggage is, and how they’ll
respond in any situation. Good. That’s how you keep them realistic
Here’s the thing: All that
effort and time spent does not mean you should put it all in the
It’s common advice: long
passages of backstory interrupt the action. They kill the pacing.
They bring the story to a dead stop, no question about it. What is
discussed less often is the double-whammy of backstory. Big,
indigestible lumps of backstory also ruin the reader’s experience of
getting to know your characters.
Don’t forget, your first
serious readers will be literary agents, the very people you want
most to have a wonderful experience of your novel. They want that
too. Agents are just like you and me: they want to get involved
with the story. They want to be engrossed. Captivated.
Sad to say, much more
often than not backstory prevents this from happening. Novels that
exhibit fluid prose, that have an interesting premise, and that even
manage to develop that premise into a compelling plot can fall
utterly flat thanks to backstory.
You keep your readers
engaged in the story by raising questions and presenting little
mysteries. Or big ones. Sentence to sentence and scene to scene,
writing that hooks the reader is filled with tantalizing tidbits for
readers to be curious about. If your protagonist’s cell phone
rings, readers will be naturally and immediately curious as to who’s
calling and what they want.
That’s a small plot hook,
and if it comes at the end of a chapter, may well propel the reader
into the next chapter rather than turning off the light to go to
sleep. Similarly, if your protagonist is missing half of his left
index finger, readers will be naturally and immediately curious as
to how that happened.
Let’s imagine you
introduce that fact in a compelling way. Perhaps, your opening scene
has your protagonist hanging by one hand from a window ledge,
holding a screaming child by his other hand, a situation in which
that missing half of a finger may be the difference between hanging
on and falling. In that circumstance, you might just launch the
reader through the entire book in eager (if morbid) curiosity to
know how the guy lost the finger.
Some of the most
compelling hooks you can employ are questions about your characters.
What happened to them in the second grade that they still won’t talk
about even at age forty? Why do they take a seven mile detour on
their way to work every day? Why do they insist on leaving their
shoes untied? Raised in
Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2010
the right way, these
questions make readers insanely curious to learn the answers,
because the answer often relates to thorny emotional issues the
character is grappling with.
That’s powerful stuff.
Readers love those kinds of mysteries, especially the readers who
are literary agents and see compelling character-based mysteries all
too rarely in submissions from the slushpile.
With that in mind, you can
see where the problem is: character questions hook readers by making
them curious. Backstory’s job is to relieve readers of any such
pesky curiosity they might be harboring towards your characters. In
other words, you ruin the mystery if the aforementioned opening
scene starts this way:
I sure wish my brother hadn’t shot off my finger with his air
rifle when we were kids,
Mick Danger thought as
he hung by one hand out the third-floor window of an apartment
building on 12th avenue, the extra grip would come in
pretty handy right about now.
Not all backstory is evil,
but that blatantly mystery-destroying example illustrates why most
of it is. Too often, writers use backstory preemptively: They err
on the side of including too much backstory, too soon. They answer
every question readers might have, usually before the reader even
begins to wonder.
Preemptive backstory is
like revealing the murderer’s identity on the first page of a
mystery novel. Would you want to read the rest of the book? Why
bother? Or consider Orson Welles’ classic 1941 movie Citizen
Kane: the movie opens with Kane’s dying word, “Rosebud,” and the
whole rest of the picture is about finding out what it means.
Preemptive backstory is akin to imagining that Welles, in a sudden
fit of directorial madness, had decided to release the film under
the title “Rosebud Was His Sled.”
destroys the mystery. Backstory leaves your readers with nothing
left to wonder about your characters, and precious little reason to
become involved, engaged, and captivated by your book. It destroys
your readers’ opportunity to solve your characters’ mysteries on
We all know how much fun
it is to figure something out on our own and solve a mystery. Why
would you want to spoil that fun for your readers? Don’t you want
them to have a good time reading your book?
Still, not all backstory
is evil. Backstory has its good side too, and next month I’ll
tackle some hands-on techniques for using backstory to create and
sustain mystery, rather than to destroy it.
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Jason Black is a book doctor who actively blogs about character
development. He will be presenting a session on book doctoring at
the 2010 PNWA Summer Writers Conference. To learn more about Jason
or read his blog, visit his website at