To submit requests for assistance, or provide feedback regarding accessibility, please contact support@masterclass.com.

From J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the greatest works of literature are full of memorable characters with rich backstories. Backstories help the reader understand character motivation and key plot points"}' automatic='true'>plot points. If you’re an aspiring writer, learning how to write good backstories is an important exercise that will help you create fuller characters that read as authentic and nuanced.

Save

Share


David Mamet Teaches Dramatic WritingDavid Mamet Teaches Dramatic Writing

The Pulitzer Prize winner teaches you everything he's learned across 26 video lessons on dramatic writing.

Learn More

What Is a Character Backstory?

A backstory is a comprehensive overview of a character’s history that extends beyond the story in which the character appears. Devising backstories is a crucial part of character creation since a character’s background will inform the action of the main narrative. Writing character backstories can be part of the worldbuilding process. It’s a way to create fully formed characters who resemble real people with nuanced personality traits.

How to Write Compelling Backstories for Your Characters

Backstories are essential to creating memorable, authentic characters in your writing. Here are some tips to help you write compelling backstories:

  1. Build a timeline of your character’s life events. Plotting out the key events in your character’s past can help you better understand your character’s personality and point of view. What were they like at a young age? What was their high school experience like? Did they have a best friend? When was the first time they fell in love? Continue plotting out these key events until you reach the present day. Not only will this exercise help you better understand your character’s thoughts, personality, and quirks, it will also give you a bird’s eye view of the formative events in your character’s life.
  2. Make sure backstory details are relevant. When writing backstory for a new character, it can be tempting to include every bit of personal history that seems funny or interesting. However, focus on backstory that directly informs the plot points and conflicts that your character experiences in the main story. For example, if your main character’s best friend dies in your novel or short story, backstory that explains the depth of their friendship will deepen the emotional stakes. On the other hand, backstory that explores your character’s favorite food or an adventuring trip they took with their parents will feel like a waste of time, since it does not connect to your character’s present emotional reality.
  3. Draw inspiration from real life. Writing a believable character backstory can be difficult. That’s why it’s helpful to draw inspiration from real life. Think about the way you recount formative events in your own life. Pay attention to the way your friends and loved ones tell stories. Read biographies of celebrities, politicians, or historical figures to understand the important episodes that shaped their lives. Taking note of real peoples’ backstories will make your character’s backstory seem all the more authentic and genuine.
  4. Show, don’t tell. When weaving details from your character’s backstory into the text of your novel or short story, it’s important to avoid info-dumps. Too much backstory at once can cause the reader to become bored, which is why it’s important to vary the way in which a character’s past is revealed. expositionShow, don’t tell is a writing technique in which a character’s personal history is revealed through actions, sensory details, or emotions. In other words, the author attempts to “show you” what happened rather than simply telling you what happened. Revealing your main character’s past life through tangible details and flashbacks can help the reader gain insight into the character’s background without relying on info-dumping.
  5. Don’t overload your first chapter with backstory. When writing the first draft of a novel, it can be tempting to try to get all of your character’s backstory out of the way at the beginning. However, frontloading your novel with backstory and exposition will likely cause the reader to get bored since backstory often gets in the way of plotting, conflict, and organic character development. Try to spread out your backstory over the course of the whole story, deploying information as it becomes relevant to that character’s current situation.

Want to Learn More About Writing?

Become a better writer with the Masterclass Annual Membership. Gain access to exclusive video lessons taught by literary masters, including Neil Gaiman, David Sedaris, Joyce Carol Oates, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, and more.

Save

Share