Character backstory is an important tool for the writer. Knowing the character inside and out will help to create 3 dimensional, convincing characters and will help to lift them off the page. If you would like to read more about why you need character backstory then you might want to check out our article here. There are several problems that can arise from introducing character backstory if not approached properly and those include the following:
- Large Chunks of Exposition
- Idiot Lectures
- Underdeveloped or Interchangeable Characters
Large Chunks of Exposition
This can manifest itself in lengthy internal narrative or reflection and a great deal of telling rather than showing. Whilst this might not sound like a big issue, this is one of the main reasons for the slowing of a story and a reader feeling disengaged from the plot.
Large chunks of exposition are usually a result of trying to introduce too much too late and usually stem from a writer not knowing or not having planned out the backstory of the character as intimately as they should have. This gives the feeling of the writer exploring the backstory for themselves, for the first time, as they write.
Self-Edit: Look out for long chunks of narrative explaining backstory – including any periods of reflection or internal narrative. Jot down the most salient points – only those that are absolutely essential for the reader to know before they get to this point. Determine how you can introduce those in to the story bit by bit much earlier on. Really stick by ‘show don’t tell’ and make sure you are ‘showing’ your reader as much as you can by avoiding the lengthy ‘telling’ approach.
The term is not one of our favourites here at writing.co.uk but it does summarise the problem that arises through trying to introduce character backstory or important information through dialogue. Idiot lectures result in unnatural and unconvincing sounding dialogue and are usually the result of a writer trying to explain something to the reader through dialogue with another character – usually, it is information that the character should already know but is being repeated for the benefit of the reader.
Self-Edit: Look out for any points in the story where you find characters saying things such as “As you know…” or where explanation is ‘catch up’ for the reader rather than moving the plot forward. Go back through your plot and plant the seeds of this information at various points preceding the point where the reader must know this information. Remember to only stick to the essentials. Create scenes or exchanges so that we can learn a little more about the character piece by piece, almost without noticing and yet still feel as though we are moving forward with the story.
Underdeveloped or Interchangeable Characters
Every protagonist must be moving towards a goal as the plot progresses; they face obstacles and diversions but ultimately their journey will result in a development of sorts of their own character. Are you lacking convincing character development towards this ultimate goal? Or do your characters feel interchangeable? These are usually symptoms of a lack of intimate knowledge – on the part of the writer in the first instance – of the character’s backstory.
Everybody reacts to events differently. The way we react is mostly determined by our own character made up of previous experiences or our perspective of a situation. This is our very own backstory, and it is this that makes us unique. Similarly, it is this that will keep each of your characters unique. By continuing to learn from our experiences, we grow as individuals, and again it is this that will make your characters grow and develop with the plot as they learn from their experiences and build on their own backstory.
Self-edit: Spend some time writing out character backstory for each character. Put the characters in various scenarios even if you aren’t going to use the scenario in your novel. Make sure there is consistency in their reactions and responses. Replace the character with another and see how differently they act or process the situation they are facing.
Above all the most important thing to effectively weave in character backstory is knowledge. The better you know your characters the more alive they are on the page. This will seep through into your writing – you will find yourself no longer trying to explore or explain actions through writing lengthy narrative and will instead instinctively manipulate reactions and communications getting the message across just as effectively.
If you would like to know more about literary techniques such as writing flashbacks then you might like to read our article on How to Master Writing Flashbacks.
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