How to Write a Character Backstory: Guide for Fiction Writers

character backstory

Key Takeaways on Writing a Character Backstory:

  • Start with Basics: Identify the character’s name, age, race, gender, and profession.
  • Explore Core Values: Determine their values, goals, and motivations, and the experiences that shaped them.
  • Incorporate Conflict: Ensure the backstory includes conflicts or challenges that have shaped the character.
  • Use Specific Details: Write vivid descriptions about specific events to make the backstory tangible.
  • Avoid Clichés: Steer clear of overused tropes and ensure characters are flawed and relatable.
  • Strategic Reveal: Decide how and when to reveal the backstory through flashbacks, dialogue, or exposition.
  • Drive the Plot: Use the backstory to influence the character’s actions, decisions, and development in the main plot – no pointless information, please!

Do you want to create rich, believable characters for your novel, short story, or screenplay?

One of the best ways to do this is by developing interesting backstories for your characters!

When I wrote Iron Dogs, one of my main goals was to write each chapter from a different main character’s perspective. In order to pull that off, I had to really know these characters inside and out. Creating a dynamic and unique backstory for each one was the only way to go.

And boy, am I glad I did! Not only does each character feel like a real person, with a rich history full of regrets, hopes, and dreams that drive their decisions and actions throughout the narrative, but the exercise helped me to find each character’s distinct voice – and make the story even stronger.

In this guide, we will discuss how to create character backstories that will make your characters more relatable. We’ll cover everything from plot devices to motivation.

Keep reading to learn more about character backstories in writing!

How to Create a Character Backstory

Infographic on how to create a character backstory

Here are my best tips for coming up with interesting backstories for your characters in a novel, short story, or screenplay:

Build the Foundation

Go beyond basic details like name and profession by considering how these aspects influence your character’s worldview and daily life.

For instance, someone growing up in a bustling city might have different experiences and skills compared to someone from a rural area. Questions to consider include:

  • What is their background (e.g., family, upbringing, significant life events)?
  • How do their physical attributes impact their experiences and interactions?
  • What are their core beliefs?
  • How do their profession and skills influence their personality and story role?
  • In what ways does their environment (e.g., historical period, culture, community) shape their worldview?

Core Values, Goals, and Motivations

Next, identify your character’s core values, goals, and motivations. What is most important to them? What experiences have they had that have shaped who they are? What are they striving for?

When you know what drives your character, you can start to develop the events of their backstory that led them to where they are today. Think about:

  • What principles guide my character’s decisions and actions?
  • What personal achievements or successes does my character aspire to?
  • What drives my character to pursue their goals, despite obstacles?

Personal Connections

Consider your character’s connections. Who do they know and care about? What sort of relationships do they have? Friends? Family? These relationships can provide both plot hooks for your storyteller as well as help round out your character’s personality.

  • What past events have shaped my character’s relationships with friends and family?
  • How do these relationships impact my character’s decisions and actions in the story?
  • Are there any conflicts or strong bonds in these relationships that could drive the plot?
  • How do my character’s connections reflect or contradict their core values and beliefs?
  • What role do these relationships play in my character’s personal growth or downfall?

Include Conflict

what is conflict in a story

Make sure your backstory is grounded in conflict. Conflict is the engine that propels the main story forward, and the same is true for backstories. Without conflict, a backstory will likely be pretty boring!

So ask yourself: what challenges has your character faced? How have they overcome adversity? How have they succeeded and how have they failed? You can use some of these events during the rising action section of your story.

  • What specific conflicts have fundamentally shaped my character’s life and personality?
  • How have these conflicts influenced my character’s fears, goals, and relationships?
  • In what ways has my character adapted or changed as a result of overcoming or succumbing to these challenges?
  • Are there any unresolved conflicts from the past that could resurface in the story?
  • How can these conflicts from the backstory be woven into the main storyline to add tension?

Be Detailed

Use specific details to bring your character’s backstory to life. Vivid descriptions will help readers visualize the key events of your character’s childhood and general past, making their backstory feel real and tangible.

  1. What vivid memories or experiences from their past have shaped their worldview?
  2. How can sensory details (sights, sounds, smells) be used to make these memories come alive again in the story?
  3. What objects, places, or events hold significant emotional value for the character and why?
  4. How do these detailed elements of their past influence their present behavior and relationships?

Keep Track of the Timeline

As you create your character’s backstory, you may want to try writing a timeline for their life – this can help you keep all of the details straight!

  • Start with major life events, then fill in details that led to or resulted from these moments.
  • Use the timeline to identify patterns or recurring themes in the character’s life.
  • Consider how historical or cultural events intersect with your character’s personal timeline.
character backstories in a book

Use Backstory to Drive the Plot

Your character’s backstory is an essential tool that you can use to drive the main story plot. By planning out your character’s history, you can reveal key details and past events that will help to move the story forward.

  • For example, if your character is haunted by a traumatic event from their past, this can provide motivation for them to take action in the present.
  • Or, if your character is driven by revenge, this can create conflict and help to propel the story forward.
  • If your character has a dark secret in their past, this can create suspense and keep readers guessing.
  • If your protagonist is struggling with a personal tragedy, this can be used to fuel their drive to overcome the conflict of the story.
  • Similarly, a character’s positive experiences can be used to create moments of hope and triumph.

Understanding your character’s history can create a richer and more compelling story. So don’t be afraid to dig into your character’s childhood and past – it just might be the key to unlocking an amazing story.

READ MORE: For character backstory inspiration, check out my list of 159+ character backstory ideas, organized by type of backstory.

What Is a Backstory?

A backstory is the history of a character, providing information about the character’s life – who they are and why they behave the way they do.

Although backstory is not essential for every character, it can be incredibly helpful in creating well-rounded, believable characters with depth and complexity. Backstory can help to explain a character’s motivations, fears, and flaws and can provide insight into their actions and decisions.

A well-developed backstory can make a character feel more real to readers or viewers and can help them connect with the character on a deeper level. For these reasons, it is often worth taking the time to create a backstory for your main characters.

However, it is important to strike a balance – too much backstory can bog down the story, while too little can leave readers feeling frustrated or confused.

Benefits of Writing Backstories

One of the benefits of writing good backstories is that it can help you to get to know your characters better!

By fleshing out their history and motivations, you can develop a deeper understanding of who they are and what drives them. This will make it much easier for you to write the rest of your story in a natural way!

Additionally, having a well-rounded backstory can make your characters, especially protagonists and antagonists, more believable and three-dimensional. It can also give you a richer source of material to draw from when creating scenes and dialogue.

So, take the time to use the tips below to come up with a detailed backstory for as many characters as you can. It will really help when it comes to writing each of your scenes.

The Importance of Consistency

When you are creating many characters for a story, make sure to be consistent in their backstories! Giving each character a unique and well-defined backstory helps to make them feel like real people and makes it easier for readers to connect with them.

Consistency also helps to create a sense of cohesion between the characters and makes the story as a whole feel more believable. More importantly, you’ll be consistent in how you present your characters throughout your story.

Of course, consistency doesn’t mean that every character has to have the same exact backstory – that would be boring! But it does mean making sure that their backstories fit together logically and that they all follow the same rules.

Show enough backstory to allow the reader to glean and make assumptions about what remains behind the curtain of time, yet continues to influence the character’s worldview, attitudes, decisions, and actions.

Larry brooks

How to Avoid Clichés With Backstories

When writing a character backstory, avoid clichés like the plague! That doesn’t mean your characters can’t be orphaned prodigies with tragic pasts who must overcome great odds to save the day.

But, you should find unique ways to tell those past events. Here are some tips:

  • Give your characters flaws that make them relatable and interesting. No one wants to read about a perfect Mary Sue who always knows what to do and never makes mistakes.
  • Avoid overly familiar tropes. For example, if you’re writing about a young woman who’s just been orphaned, don’t have her immediately be taken in by a kindly old couple who just happen to live next door. Instead, think about what would really happen in that situation and use that as the basis for your character’s backstory.
  • Make sure your backstory enhances your story rather than bogging it down. A lengthy backstory that doesn’t add anything to the plot is just filler and will only serve to irritate readers.
  • Avoid using the cliché of the “mysterious past.” This is where a character has a dark and shrouded history that they’re not entirely forthcoming about. While this can create an air of mystery around a character, it can also make them feel untrustworthy and make it difficult for readers to connect with them. This is one of my pet peeves and something that I see way too often in the work of beginning writers! Don’t do it!

If you are feeling stuck when creating a backstory for your character, try using an AI story generator to help you out with new and inventive character ideas!

If you keep these things in mind, you’ll be well on your way to avoiding clichés when writing a character backstory!

Examples of Character Backstories

A well-written character background can make a character come alive on the page, giving them depth and history that readers can connect with. There are many ways to write a successful character backstory, but here are a few examples of well-written backstories that bring characters to life:

Harry Potter

In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, readers are given a detailed account of Harry’s early life, including his parents’ tragic deaths and his time living with his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon.

This information helps readers to understand Harry’s motivations and experiences throughout the series, making him a more relatable and sympathetic character.

The Hunger Games's Katniss

In Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, readers are given glimpses of Katniss’ childhood through flashbacks scattered throughout the novel.

These flashbacks give context to Katniss’ actions and decisions later in the main story, humanizing her and making her an even more sympathetic protagonist.

What these examples have in common is that they provide key information about the characters that helps readers to understand them better. A well-thought-out backstory can make all the difference when you’re writing a relatable and flawed character.

harry potter backstory

Conclusion

Backstories are an important part of character development, but they can also be a lot of fun to write. They add another layer of complexity to your characters, and they can help you get into your characters’ heads in a way that writing the main story plot cannot always do.

When creating backstories for your characters, make sure that they are well-integrated with the story and consistent with the character’s personality and point of view. And most importantly, have fun with your character creation! Happy writing!

how to write a character backstory

Q’s About Backstories

What is a good backstory for a character?

A good backstory for a character is one that is believable and provides context for the character’s motivation in the main narrative. As noted in this post, a backstory should be specific enough about the character’s life and background to feel real, but not so detailed that it bogs down the story. It should also be relevant to the character’s arc, providing clues about why the character is the way they are and how they might react in given situations.

Does every character need a backstory?

No, not all characters need a backstory. In some cases, too much focus on a character’s backstory can actually detract from the story itself. After all, readers are typically more interested in what happens to a main character in the present than in their past. Please note, however, that creating a backstory may be useful to you as the writer when plotting out character development for each of your major characters, even if you don’t include it in the story itself.

How do you reveal your backstory?

To reveal a character’s backstory, you can use flashbacks, which show past events directly or indirectly through a character’s memories. Or, try exposition, which has the narrator inform readers about the character’s past, either straightforwardly or through character interactions. Dialogue is also effective, letting characters naturally share their histories through conversations.

How do you write a good tragic backstory?

To write a good tragic backstory, focus on creating a relatable and significant event that deeply affects your character’s motivations and actions. This event should connect emotionally with the reader, adding depth to the character’s journey and the story’s overall themes. Make sure to keep the event impactful yet concise in the story.

Enjoyed this article? Check out these other fiction-writing tutorials:

World Building for Fiction Authors: How to Create a Believable World

What Is the Climax of a Story?

What is Falling Action in a Story? [Definition and Examples]

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