How To Write a Backstory: An 8 Step Guide

If you are wondering how to write a backstory, there are several important tips you need to keep in mind. Learn more about how to create a strong character backstory with this step-by-step guide.

If you want to become a better writer, you need to craft stronger characters. One of the ways to do that is to focus on specific events in your character’s life. Your character’s past could play an important role in your main story, but how exactly do you want to reveal your character’s history to the reader? 

When you zoom in on your character’s background, avoid info-dumping. If you want to write a compelling backstory, focus on formative events that shape your characters, decide where you want to share that backstory, and show instead of tell. 

What Is a Backstory?

How To Write a Backstory?

A backstory in a story describes what happens to shape a character prior to the story unfolding, as it pertains to the plot. It may encompass their childhood, early life, or formative experiences. It sets the context for readers. The writer of a backstory is giving your readers information that lets them know why a character behaves in a certain way. It explains their motivations, fears, and desires. Now, not every character in a story needs a backstory; apart from the foil and main characters. 

Step 1: Pick Formative Events That Shape Your Characters

First, take a closer look at some of the big events in your character’s life that may have shaped them. If your character has a certain attitude, or if your character makes certain decisions, what are some of the events that may have caused him or her to behave that way?

For example, if your character responds to certain events in the story with extreme anger or emotion, why is that the case? A few of the events that may have caused your character to behave that way include:

  • A past history that has a significant amount of abuse.
  • A history of serving in the military overseas causes him or her to be hypervigilant.
  • A history of being involved in a serious motor vehicle accident that leads to PTSD.
  • Losing a loved one at a young age is still traumatic for him or her.

Of course, every character archetype is different. These events may or may not be relevant to the history of your character. You need to think about events that may have taken place in your character’s life that cause him or her to react to certain situations in certain ways. Then, you need to place those events in context, as they will give your reader important information that explains how the story unfolds. 

Step 2: Decide How You Want To Discuss These Events

Once you have a few events in mind, you need to think about how you want to discuss them in terms of your story. You do not simply want to shoehorn these events into your story, as your reader will have a difficult time keeping up.

For example, if your main character has a history of military service, you may want to describe an event where your character gets together with old fellow soldiers. Then, they reminisce about some of the things they saw overseas. This could be a great way for you to introduce your main character’s history of military service. 

Or, if your character has a history of abuse, you could write a scene where your character meets with a therapist. Then, the therapist dives into the history of your main character, and this allows you to expand on their past experiences. The Sopranos used this technique regularly.

For more, check out our storytelling guide.

Even though you need to get these events into the story, be careful with how you present them. If you constantly have your character going through flashbacks, your reader will have difficulty remembering if the event is in the past or the present. It will break up your story, and you will have difficulty generating a cohesive plot. You need to make sure you place these events in your story in a way that makes sense to the reader. 

Step 3: Decide On Exposition

You may decide to share some backstory early on, in a story. One of the most common ways that a back story is introduced is with the opening “once upon a time … “ Now, this is something that is typically reserved for fairy tales, but you may want to do something similar with your story. You need to think carefully about how you want your story to read. Even though you may want to have a separate “prologue” from the rest of the main story, you need to be careful with how much exposition you include.

If you include too much exposition in your story, you run the risk of overwhelming your reader. It isn’t always bad to tell your reader about the past experiences of your character. For example, a prologue can give the reader a lot of context for current events that are taking place, particularly if you are writing epic science fiction or fantasy novel. It could also be an efficient way to communicate information.

On the other hand, if you spend too much time on the exposition, you rest overwhelming or boring the reader. Then, when the actual story begins, your reader may have difficulty keeping everything straight. Try to avoid a bland exposition, and make sure you strike the right balance for your reader. It is not necessarily a black-and-white answer. You may want to share some information in a prologue while weaving the rest of it into the story. 

Step 4: Consider How To Show Instead of Tell

How to write a backstory?
You can use flashbacks from time to time that takes your reader back to a separate point in the story

One of the most common tips people recommend when writing a character’s backstory is showing instead of telling. You should imagine yourself painting a picture for your reader on a canvas. Instead of simply typing words on a page, try to craft some vivid imagery for the reader. Some of the ways you can show instead of tell include:

  • Use Flashbacks: You can use flashbacks from time to time that takes your reader back to a separate point in the story. You need to be very clear regarding when a flashback is taking place. Otherwise, your readers could get confused. For example, you may want to have a specific encounter that triggers a recollection in the memory of your character.
  • Take Advantage of Dialogue: You also need to use dialogue between your characters to explain certain elements of the backstory. For example, suppose your character has a history of military service. In that case, the dialogue between your character and his or her fellow soldiers can be a great way to expound on the backstory.
  • Build Strong Relationships: Use the relationships the main character builds with other characters in the story to explain some of the main character’s backstory. If you explain why relationships are the way they are, you can dive into the backstory. 

Try to spread out these events throughout the course of the story. This is a great way to build the backstory out gradually. Instead of dumping all the information at the beginning, you can figure out which events you want to reveal at certain points in time. Some of the places you can draw ideas from include:

  • Think about formative experiences your character might have had.
  • Your character might also have emotional memories that you can work into the backstory.
  • You may want to draw from secondary sources in the story as well. This could include letters and old journals.
  • You may even want to draw from your own life stories or those of famous people to craft stories for your characters.

If you combine all of this information together, you can create a compelling backstory for your main character. Make sure you use as much descriptive language as possible to keep the reader interested. If you want to read a great example of a backstory, take a look at how Charles Dickens introduces David Copperfieldone of his most popular works.

Step 5: Link Backstory to the Plot

If you want to describe a significant event that happened in your character’s life, you must make sure you keep it relevant to the main story. If the event you describe is not relevant to what is happening at that time in the story, your reader will have difficulty keeping up. Try to limit the descriptions to what is relevant to the story. The backstory of a foil character, for example, is only useful, if it reveals more about that person’s motivations or drives the plot.

If the actions of one of your characters have to be explained, this is a good opportunity for weaving in a relevant backstory. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a direct cause-and-effect relationship, but it does have to be consistent. You can also use the events from the backstory to dictate the plot’s direction. If you have an idea of how you want the plot to unfold, but you aren’t sure exactly how you want to order the sequence, consider using the events in the backstory as a guide. 

Step 6: Use Backstory To Explain Emotional and Psychological Motivations

One of the biggest challenges of writing a back story is using it to explain your main character’s psychological and emotional motivations. It can be difficult to take such a deep dive into the central nervous system of your main character, but you need to find a way to do so without using large paragraphs of text.

For example, your character may have evolved into a serial killer. What are some of the events that explain your character’s motivation? Perhaps your main character saw one of his or her family members murdered in front of him or her as a young child. This could explain why your main character evolved the way he or she did. Now, how can you show this event and explain the emotions and motivations of your main character without boring the reader? That is one of the biggest challenges.

You may want to work this in as a flashback when your main character commits a murder in the story. Or, you may want to work in a flashback if your character sees someone else killed on the street.

This type of backstory is incredibly important because it clearly explains why your character behaves the way he or she does. This will also allow you to dive into the psychological and emotional drives of the main character. If you do a good job explaining this motivation, your reader may even empathize with a serial killer. That would be the mark of a truly impressive story. Try to use the backstory to explain different motivations your character might have.

Step 7: Draw Inspiration From Other Sources

Draw inspiration from other sources
Try to draw inspiration for your character from things you know

Without a doubt, crafting a strong backstory for your character can be a significant challenge. You might be worried that your main character is not necessarily believable. Some of the ways you can fix this situation include:

  • Try to draw inspiration for your character from things you know. Do you have any family members or friends who can serve as an inspiration for your main character?
  • Think about prior experiences you may have had in your life. What prior experiences drive you? Can you use similar experiences to drive your character?
  • You may want to think about public figures you follow as well. These could include famous musicians, actors, or athletes. Do they have any life experiences that you can use to craft a strong character?
  • Think about the different places you have gone to and the various cultures you have experienced. Are there any trips that have had a significant impact on you? Can you use this type of experience to better craft a backstory for your character?

If other people in your life have had similar backstories, then you know it will be believable. That is why you should draw on actual people you know and life experiences you have had to try to craft a backstory for your character.

Step 8: Write Multiple Character Backstories 

Of course, not every character needs to have some sort of detailed exposition, but you may have multiple characters in the story that you want to introduce.

You do not necessarily need to demarcate a separate backstory for each of the main characters; however, you may be able to introduce multiple backstories simultaneously. For example, if you have a flashback to a specific event, you may have multiple main characters in that flashback. Then, the reader will see that multiple characters have undergone the same experience, explaining why they behave the way they do. It takes a lot of skill to weave multiple backstories together, but if you do so efficiently, you can save space and avoid dumping too much information on the reader at once.

The Final Word on How To Write a Backstory

When you are writing a backstory, it is important to avoid being cliche when you try to craft a compelling character. A good backstory dive into your character’s personality and present behavior without boring the reader. Remember that you do not necessarily have to put all of the backstories in the first chapter. An important part of creative writing is writing a good backstory, and you should not expect to get this perfect the first time.

Think about the different plot points that you can use to introduce the personality traits of a new character. You may even want to draw on real people from present-day society to help you write an inspirational or tragic backstory effectively.

FAQs About How To Write a Backstory

If I am looking for examples of a good back story, what should I read?

If you want to take a look at a good back story, consider reading the Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling. She does a great job of introducing the story of Harry Potter’s parents into the plot without completely breaking up the story arc.

Are there any writing tips I should follow if I want to create a good character backstory?

Try not to overwhelm your reader with too much information at the story’s beginning. It can be tempting to try and include everything in the first few pages, but you simply don’t have to do so. You can weave backstory into the rest of the plot.

Why is it important for me to use backstory to introduce a character?

You need to use your backstory to explain why the character is behaving in a certain way. Otherwise, your reader is just going to be confused. 

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  • Bryan Collins is the owner of Become a Writer Today. He's an author from Ireland who helps writers build authority and earn a living from their creative work. He's also a former Forbes columnist and his work has appeared in publications like Lifehacker and Fast Company.