How to Write a Character Backstory: Guide for Fiction Writers

how to write a character backstory article

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 and unique backstories for your characters!

How do I write a backstory for my story character?

  • 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!

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 compelling character backstories that will bring your story to life and make your characters more relatable. We’ll cover everything from plot devices to motivation.

So whether you’re just starting out or you’re stuck in the middle of your story, this guide will help you get where you need to be!

What Is a Backstory, and Why Do You Need One for Your Characters?

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.

What are the Benefits of Writing Character 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.

Neil’s Tips: How to Create a Compelling Backstory for Your Character

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:

Tip One: First, start with the basics. What is your character’s name, age, race, gender, and profession? Also, where are they from? This will give you a good foundation to work from.

Tip Two: 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.

Tip Three: 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.

Tip Four: 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 can feel flat and uninteresting.

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.

Tip Five: 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.

Tip Six: 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!

character backstories in a book

How to Use Your Character’s Backstory to Drive the Plot of Your Story

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.

The Importance of Consistency When Creating Backstories for Multiple Characters

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 When Writing Character 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 Well-Written 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 craft a successful character backstory, but here are a few examples of well-written backstories that bring characters to life:

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.

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 compelling 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-crafted backstory can make all the difference in bringing a character to life on the page.

harry potter backstory

Common Questions About Character 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. A good backstory can add depth and dimension to a character, making them feel like a real person with a rich history, rather than a one-dimensional figure.

Does every character need a backstory?

No, not all characters need a backstory. While backstories can be helpful in fleshing out a character and making them more relatable, they are not always necessary. 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. So, only include a backstory when it is essential to the story! Please note, however, that creating a backstory may be useful in 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?

In fiction, a backstory is an account of events that took place before the story’s primary action began. It can be used to provide context, explain a character’s motivations, or establish mood. Backstories can be revealed in a number of ways, including flashbacks, exposition, and dialogue.

Flashbacks are one of the most common devices for revealing backstories. They can be used to provide crucial information about a character’s past or to simply add depth and richness to the story. In a flashback, the action briefly shifts from the present day to a time in the past. This can be done through direct flashbacks, where the events of the past are shown directly to the reader, or indirect flashbacks, where the events are related by a character through dialogue or narration.

Exposition is another common method for revealing a character’s life. In the exposition, the narrator tells the reader directly about events that took place in the past. This can be done through direct exposition, where the narrator simply states what happened, or indirect exposition, where the narrator reveals information through conversations between characters or descriptions of actions.

Dialogue can also be used to reveal backstories. Characters often share information about their pasts with each other through conversation.

How do you write a good tragic backstory?

Writing a tragic backstory is all about describing your character’s pain and using it to fuel their journey. Choose a pivotal, yet totally believable event that has left a lasting scar on your character. This event should also push the character toward their goals and move your story plot along. Don’t forget to sprinkle in some foreshadowing so that when the tragedy is revealed, it’s a jaw-dropping moment for your readers! Done right, a tragic backstory adds layers to your character, making them more relatable to your readers.

A tragic backstory provides depth and context for a character’s pain, motivating them to pursue their goals and driving the plot forward. In order to write a good tragic backstory, it is important to choose an event that is both significant and believable. The event should be significant enough to have a lasting impact on the character, but also believable in the context of the story. It is also important to ensure that the tragedy is properly foreshadowed in the story so that it comes as a surprise to the reader. When done correctly, a tragic backstory can make a character more relatable and sympathetic, adding layers of complexity to the story.

villain backstory

How do you write a backstory for a villain?

Before you can write a villain’s backstory, you need to understand what motivates them. What drives them to do evil deeds? Is it a quest for power? A desire for revenge? Once you know what drives your villain, you can start to flesh out their backstory. Who were they before they turned to darkness? What happened to make them the way they are? The more detailed you can make your villain’s backstory, the more believable they will be. However, don’t forget that your villain is still the bad guy, so don’t try to make them too sympathetic! The goal is to create a complex character that readers will love to hate.

What is meant by Mary Sue?

Mary Sue is a term used in fan fiction to describe a character who is overly perfect. Mary Sues are often original characters that are inserted into the story, and they often have unrealistic abilities or characteristics. For example, a Mary Sue might be perfect at everything they do, or they might have a special power that no one else has. Most people find these characters to be annoying and unrealistic. In general, the term “Mary Sue” is used to describe any character who is too perfect to be believable.

When should you reveal a character’s backstory?

Revealing a character’s backstory in writing should be a gradual process! This will allow readers to organically understand the character’s motivations and choices, while also maintaining suspense and intrigue. While it might be tempting to disclose all details upfront, strategically placing pieces of a character’s past and including flashbacks at key moments can enhance the emotional impact of a story.

how to write a character backstory

Final Thoughts – How to Write Character Backstories

Backstories are an important part of character development, but they can also be a lot of fun to write. They add another layer of richness and 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!

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

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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