Why Backstory Makes for Boring Characters

by Jason Black

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2010

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2010

If you’re my kind of writer, you’ve probably spent hours on understanding who your characters are.  You may have worked up your characters’ histories in endless detail. You may know what their first job was, who their first kiss was with, and what it is that they secretly want to be when they grow up.  You’ve done it so you can understand what makes these people tick, what their emotional baggage is, and how they’ll respond in any situation. Good. That’s how you keep them realistic and believable.

Here’s the thing: All that effort and time spent does not mean you should put it all in the book.

It’s common advice: long passages of backstory interrupt the action. They kill the pacing. They bring the story to a dead stop, no question about it.  What is discussed less often is the double-whammy of backstory.  Big, indigestible lumps of backstory also ruin the reader’s experience of getting to know your characters.

Don’t forget, your first serious readers will be literary agents, the very people you want most to have a wonderful experience of your novel.  They want that too.  Agents are just like you and me: they want to get involved with the story. They want to be engrossed. Captivated.

Sad to say, much more often than not backstory prevents this from happening.  Novels that exhibit fluid prose, that have an interesting premise, and that even manage to develop that premise into a compelling plot can fall utterly flat thanks to backstory.

You keep your readers engaged in the story by raising questions and presenting little mysteries.  Or big ones.  Sentence to sentence and scene to scene, writing that hooks the reader is filled with tantalizing tidbits for readers to be curious about.  If your protagonist’s cell phone rings, readers will be naturally and immediately curious as to who’s calling and what they want.

That’s a small plot hook, and if it comes at the end of a chapter, may well propel the reader into the next chapter rather than turning off the light to go to sleep.  Similarly, if your protagonist is missing half of his left index finger, readers will be naturally and immediately curious as to how that happened.

Let’s imagine you introduce that fact in a compelling way. Perhaps, your opening scene has your protagonist hanging by one hand from a window ledge, holding a screaming child by his other hand, a situation in which that missing half of a finger may be the difference between hanging on and falling.  In that circumstance, you might just launch the reader through the entire book in eager (if morbid) curiosity to know how the guy lost the finger.

Some of the most compelling hooks you can employ are questions about your characters. What happened to them in the second grade that they still won’t talk about even at age forty? Why do they take a seven mile detour on their way to work every day? Why do they insist on leaving their shoes untied? Raised in the right way, these questions make readers insanely curious to learn the answers, because the answer often relates to thorny emotional issues the character is grappling with.

That’s powerful stuff. Readers love those kinds of mysteries, especially the readers who are literary agents and see compelling character-based mysteries all too rarely in submissions from the slushpile. 

With that in mind, you can see where the problem is: character questions hook readers by making them curious.  Backstory’s job is to relieve readers of any such pesky curiosity they might be harboring towards your characters.  In other words, you ruin the mystery if the aforementioned opening scene starts this way:

I sure wish my brother hadn’t shot off my finger with his air rifle when we were kids, Mick Danger thought as he hung by one hand out the third-floor window of an apartment building on 12th avenue, the extra grip would come in pretty handy right about now.

Not all backstory is evil, but that blatantly mystery-destroying example illustrates why most of it is.  Too often, writers use backstory preemptively: They err on the side of including too much backstory, too soon.  They answer every question readers might have, usually before the reader even begins to wonder.

Preemptive backstory is like revealing the murderer’s identity on the first page of a mystery novel.  Would you want to read the rest of the book?  Why bother?  Or consider Orson Welles’ classic 1941 movie Citizen Kane: the movie opens with Kane’s dying word, “Rosebud,” and the whole rest of the picture is about finding out what it means.  Preemptive backstory is akin to imagining that Welles, in a sudden fit of directorial madness, had decided to release the film under the title “Rosebud Was His Sled.”

Preemptive backstory destroys the mystery. Backstory leaves your readers with nothing left to wonder about your characters, and precious little reason to become involved, engaged, and captivated by your book.  It destroys your readers’ opportunity to solve your characters’ mysteries on their own.

We all know how much fun it is to figure something out on our own and solve a mystery.  Why would you want to spoil that fun for your readers?  Don’t you want them to have a good time reading your book?

Still, not all backstory is evil.  Backstory has its good side too, and next month I’ll tackle some hands-on techniques for using backstory to create and sustain mystery, rather than to destroy it. 

Jason Black is a book doctor who actively blogs about character development. He will be presenting a session on book doctoring at the 2010 PNWA Summer Writers Conference. To learn more about Jason or read his blog, visit his website at www.PlotToPunctuation.com.

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