Monday, March 23, 2020

Backstory for Writers: When and How

I love backstory but not in the beginning pages of a book. There. I said it. When I mentor new writers, they invariably ask, "But how will the reader know my character? Where she's been and what made her the way she is now?"

That's easy, little scribe. We show it by their reactions and their worldview. 

Let me back up explain how I learn about my characters, before I write word one. I have a character interview I've developed over the last 20 years. I've borrowed from other authors and cut out things from mine. Now it's down from seven pages to a single one with the most important questions.

After I've filled in the basics, I begin a stream-of-consciousness backstory. This is where I find out my character's secrets, deep wounds, the lie they believe and why. I start with where and when they were born and who their parents were. The things I've learned about my character through that alone has sometimes been dramatic. The backstory helps develop my character's worldview, especially once the lie has been revealed. 

In my August 2020 release, In High Cotton, Maggie Parker and her sister, Duchess, have rich backstories. They were raised together but vastly differently. I had to go back three generations to discover why. But the discovery was worth the trouble. These two are my favorite characters I've ever written. 

But I didn't tell any of their backstory until I hit chapter four, and then only small tidbits. Being careful I didn't do an info dump of a fact the characters would have all known, I insert a single bit into dialogue or interior monologue. And only a single sentence. From In High Cotton, I introduce the reader to Maggie's mother-in-law this way:

At fifty-two, she is still a lovely woman. Though her legs are puny from the polio, her arms are firm, and her face remains unwrinkled.

Because this is on page 27, it's too early for any real backstory, but the one sentence lets the reader know this woman had polio at some point in her life. (Side note: in 1929, people said "the" polio.) 

The thing about backstory is it pulls the reader from the forward action of the story. The example above fits where it is because of what Maggie will do for her mother-in-law in the chapter. In this case, the reader needs to know she's in a wheeled chair. Maggie's narration is natural, the kind of thought a person might have noticing how she looks. (Side note: that's what they called a wheelchair then)

It takes time in life to get to know a person. The same happens in a novel. I don't want to hear your life story until I care about you. I'll bet you're the same. Oh, come on, you know it's true. And readers feel the same. Open your story showing us how your character reacts to some crisis or to her surroundings. Show me her worldview, but don't lace in any backstory up front. 

Have you ever been to a party where several of the attendees are new to you? Have you ever been cornered by your host's second-cousin-thrice-removed and she begins to tell you all about her divorce, her latest illness which led up to her gallbladder operation? You're nodding absently while looking for the nearest exit.

A novel is like a party in that way. So let's be good to them. You need the backstory to know your characters. But as a writer, it's your job to show the reader why they are the way they are, not tell them. Telling takes out the fun of discovery. 

Do you have any examples to share how backstory was done well of poorly? Join the conversation!


Ane Mulligan has been a voracious reader ever since her mom instilled within her a love of reading at age three, escaping into worlds otherwise unknown. But when Ane saw Mary Martin in PETER PAN, she was struck with a fever from which she never recovered—stage fever. She submerged herself in drama through high school and college. Years later, her two loves collided, and a bestselling, award-winning novelist emerged. She resides in Sugar Hill, GA, with her artist husband and a rascally Rottweiler. Find Ane on her websiteAmazon Author pageFacebookTwitterInstagramPinterest and The Write Conversation.  


  1. Good job, Ane. Great advice for all writers. I purposely start my novels with high action/emotional scenes which is also exactly how they start most TV series and movies these days.
    Elva Cobb Martin, Pres. ACFW-SC Chapter

  2. Thanks, Elva. You do what's a great opening for a book. Showing how your character reacts to the situation allows the reader to get to know them and care about them.