Unless you’re writing complete biographies for your characters, you’re not going to be showing the reader their entire life story. However, the character’s background is still important because it can influence how they act in the story proper.
So what to do?
Do NOT Put it All at the Intro
When a character is introduced, do not give the reader their entire life story. A secondary character shouldn’t walk up to Protagonist McGee and say “Hi, my name is Secondary Sally and I’m from SmallVillage and where my dad was a blacksmith. I got my heartbroken and ran away from home to pursue the life of an adventurer.” and on and on.
The same with the protagonist. Protagonist McGee shouldn’t be sitting in his/her room at the start of the story, staring out the window, and thinking about their past. At least, not for long.
The main reason, I think, this is a good rule of thumb is because your readers don’t care. They want to care, but they don’t yet. They want to get to know your characters first by what they’re doing in the “present”. They want to see the story move forward. They don’t want a longwinded exposition of why your character is a loner.
Another reason is that it often doesn’t fit. There’s a few reasons:
- Is it really authentic for a character to waltz up and reveal their deepest darkest secrets to practical strangers?
- If your character had some event that caused them sadness or pain in childhood, and they are now adults, are they really going to be spending time still contemplating it?
- Does it fit in with the pacing of the scene/plot for all this to be revealed now?
It might be safe to say “No” to those questions. There are of course exceptions and all that.
The better way is to sparse it out where it’s relevant, which I’ll get into.
Not Everything is Relevant
Your character’s favorite color, that weird gesture they always do, the one time they fell down and skinned their knee. Those things may not be relevant to reveal ever.
Look to your life. Even among best friends, it’s doubtful the parties know every detail of their life before they became friends.
Not every small detail of your character’s life is gonna fit in your story. Don’t throw details in there just because they’re “cool”. Giving your characters some flavor, so to speak, is fine in small doses, but the stronger choice might be to make the details relevant to the situation.
You Can Make things Relevant
I love doing this. Your character has a cool story from their past or detail, whatever it is. You can add it in and nothing will suffer for it.
The key to this is to make it relevant to the situation. If your character lost a sibling at a young age, maybe they don’t think about it very much. But maybe as they pass through a village they see two children playing and then the parent calls them inside for dinner. This is an appropriate place for a little nostalgia.
These details need triggers, preferably emotional ones.
Another way this is helpful is to help show relationships between characters. In a budding friendship, the two parties might very well share a couple stories from their pasts back and forth. They can be funny, dramatic, exciting, etc. But what this does is two things: You color your characters by giving them some details AND you show the relationship. If two friends are doing this, there’s an element of trust, closeness, familiarity, understanding, etc.
I love seeing this stuff in writing. Please do it so I can read it!
Mystery is Interesting
You don’t have to tell the reader every detail of the character’s life. Leaving a little up to the imagination is okay.
My grandfather was a WWII veteran. He never talked about the war. He flat out refused to do so if asked. We understood why, even on a minimal level. We understood that he had that experience and it shaped who he was later in life.
Your characters are similar. You can tell the reader that a character had an experience and that it influenced them, but if you want to leave some element of enigma, you don’t have to explain it in detail.
It can even be more innocent. Maybe they have a weird habit or gesture that other characters notice, but is never explained. This adds new layers of character in a very elegant and simple way.
Background Should Have an Influence
I’ve read tons of stories where there’s a character who has an extremely traumatic experience at some point in their past. The character has a monologue about it. They get a hug. And that’s that. The character moves on, is their normal chipper self and it never comes up again.
Can you make this work? As with anything, yes.
But the stronger choice is to make this have an impact on the character arc, story, or otherwise influence the character’s personality and decision making.
If their whole family was killed by a mysterious stranger, make that stranger specific. Perhaps there was a plague, the healer from some MagicalFaction decided to abandon the character’s family in their time of need or used them for less-than-ethical experiments or something. Now that character has a deep distrust and disdain for learned people. But the Protagonist and Pals need the help of someone from that faction.
Maybe they fell off a tree as a kid and are scared of heights. In the story proper they have to climb a huge tower with no railing on the stairs. If they were in a war in the past, do they avoid conflict at all costs? And so on.
Talking Isn’t the Only Way to Reveal Backstory
The way your character acts, what they believe and why, their moral compass, the way they approach a situation or conflict can tell the reader a lot about your character.
Your character is of nobility and always grew up with wealth. Their friend hasn’t. The first gives away money, treats it like no big deal. The second is appalled at this.
Another character is part of a faction of thieves that regularly steals. Another is deeply religion and see is it as wrong.
It can be anything. But showing this instead of a character saying: “I grew up with money so I consider it no big deal.” is more interesting and stronger. It can breed conflict, force characters to try and justify themselves to each other, create moral gray areas, and so on.
Consider the World
Your characters are not from 21st century Earth if you’re writing fantasy. There are going to be things that differ on a massive scale and therefore the perception of the background is going to change.
In a world with a high infant mortality rate, it’s going to be perceived and treated differently than in our world. Losing a child is sad, but in some points in history, it was almost expected that some of their children would not make it to adulthood. In the modern west, being married at 16 is seen as unwise or appalling. However, in your fantasy world, it may be common, and therefore not a social issue.
Take this into account when fleshing out backgrounds. Things that are considered horrible or awful in our eyes are going to be thought of differently in your world. This can be anything you want, but remember our standards won’t always apply.
This is further down for a reason. This has been overused lot and needs to be handled with care.
First and foremost, why does your character need a traumatic past? Is it to garner sympathy for the reader? Is it so they can get away with making bad choices? Is it just for other characters to feel sorry for the character?
A traumatic past can be used much differently. It can explain things going on in the world (war, politics, culture, etc.) and it should be used to show why the character is how they are in the story proper (not an excuse, though).
Also consider your character’s age and other life experience if they had a traumatic event happen in their past. If the trauma happened when they were 5 and they’re now 25, surely they would have found some way to cope. It doesn’t have to be healthy, but they found some way to function and live without thinking about it every minute of every day. They met people, probably laughed and had good times too, and so on.
How does the traumatic event play into the plot? What choices does the character make as a result of this experience? Try not to make everything about the trauma.
How extreme is this trauma? How extreme does it need to be? Don’t try to put an extreme thing in there just to shock the reader.
The problem with the character angsting about the trauma for too long or thinking about it constantly (especially if they’re POV) is because it stalls the plot. It becomes a blackhole where your character becomes less active. It minimizes the current story and what your character does/feel about it.
They also aren’t probably going to tell every person they meet about it, at least not until a strong sense of trust has been established.
So give them a reason. Make it relevant and use it for what it is, a tool and not to garner sympathy.
Backstory is tricky but if you sparse it out well and use what you need, you can use it to create some fascinating characters!
Your character sees or experiences something that triggers a memory (of any kind) from their past. Write a scene of your character reminiscing this event.
- Is this a good or bad memory?
- Do they share it with another character or prefer to keep it to themselves.
- Why did the trigger jog their memory? What about it reminded them?