If you’re anything like me, nothing is more fun than writing a novel. Just the idea of starting a new one fills you with giddy anticipation, and you can hardly wait to get started. But once you begin, sometimes you run into problems you didn’t anticipate – how should my character react to this or that situation? Should he run or fight? Is he smart or dumb, assertive or indecisive? Does he know first aid? Can he handle a gun? Would he call the cops or take the law into his own hands? Is he smooth with the ladies or painfully shy? Can he dance? Can he swim? What color are his eyes?
These and many other details are important to your story, and if you haven’t answered those questions before you start writing, you can screech to a halt in a hurry. The problem may be that you haven’t defined your characters before you started writing, and without some ground rules you, the author, simply don’t know how they should react to given situations.
What you need, before you start writing, is backstory.
What Is Backstory?
In a very real sense, when you write fiction, you are playing God. You create a character, you direct his or her life, and you can even kill him if you want to (without fear of prosecution!). Your fictional character becomes a real person on the written page. If you do your job right, your readers will accept him as real, and become involved in his life. They will care what happens to him, and if you do kill him off, chances are some of them will actually cry.
But real people have histories. Every living human is a result of his or her life experience, the culmination of everything that has ever happened to them. In some cases we call it “baggage”, in others we call it experience. That baggage or experience will influence how a real person reacts to a given situation, whether he will fight or run, whether he is honest or corrupt. Like real people, your characters also need histories. That’s what a backstory is-a character’s history.
You can ignore backstory and try to create it on the fly, as you write your novel, but the chances are that you will become confused at some point and take a wrong turn, causing your character to do something illogical-and that’s a nail in the heart of your novel. Characters can do unexpected things, even things that are out of character, but it must always be logical. So you really need a little backstory before you start, a way of defining your character’s personality.
In television, many series creators develop a “bible” for their show. Ronald D. Moore, in his podcasts for Battlestar Galactica, talks about the BSG bible that defines his show. This bible was developed before the series went on the air, and the scripts were expected to conform to what was known about the various characters. Col. Tighe, for example, had been in the Colonial Fleet during the first Cylon War, had fought the Toasters up close and personal, before becoming the XO of Galactica. Kara Thrace, call sign Starbuck, had been an aspiring Pyramid player before a knee injury ended her sports career. Such details were released in small dribbles over four seasons, and helped the audience understand the characters in depth; other details in the bible were probably never used, but were there as guidelines for the characters’ behavior.
How Does Backstory Work?
A backstory can be as detailed as you want, or it can be a very thin biography. Clearly, the more detailed the backstory the easier it will be to write the novel, because the questions will be answered in advance. But in a nutshell, you need to decide who your character is, where she is from, what she looks like, and what life experience she has. Does she have a family? A happy childhood? Is she dysfunctional? Gay or straight? From the city or the country? Is she cheerful or cynical? And dozens of other details that will define what she will do or say in a given situation.
You can write this up as a document and keep it on file for reference. Much of the information may never appear in your novel, but you need it just the same. The character may tell some of this backstory to an acquaintance in the novel, but only if it advances the plot. You may drop some of it into the narrative, but not as an info-dump. The backstory is there to guide you, the author-tell the reader only what he needs to know.
You should do a backstory for all your major characters, not just your protagonist. Minor characters may need little or no backstory, but the bigger role they play in the novel, the more information you need about them.
If you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, you also need to define the world in which the story takes place, which can be even more important than the characters themselves.
An Example of Backstory
In my novel, The Sword of Sophia, I wrote close to ten thousand words of backstory a year before writing the novel. In this case, the story’s universe was already in place, the setting for four previous novels, and even some of the characters were held over from The Fighter King. What I did was write eight or nine chapters of events leading up to the actual novel, details that filled in the background of the two main characters.
I detailed how Hans Norgaard, a Vegan teenager who came of age too late to defend Vega 3 from the Sirians, was actually recruited by the occupation forces to work against his own people; and how his older brother, Erik, was released from a POW camp three years after the war ended, only to arrive home and find his baby brother in an enemy uniform. The stage was thus set for conflict.
I also wrote several chapters on Erika Sebring, the Vegan newsgirl who became a slave in The Fighter King, and her arrival at Sirius on board a slave transport. I detailed some of her misadventures on Sirius and the totally unexpected events that followed.
But when I sat down and actually wrote The Sword of Sophia, I used only three of those chapters in the novel. The rest became backstory, which made the writing go very quickly (I finished the whole thing in 24 days).
Another Kind of Backstory
In writing Sword I had the advantage of another kind of backstory-because this was the fifth novel in a series, the universe was already defined. The Sirians and Vegans were well established as cultures, each with very different personalities. I already knew what had happened before the story began (the Sirian invasion of Vega as detailed in The Fighter King), and what would happen after the novel ended (the Sirian attack on the Federation in A Vow to Sophia). All I had to do was remain faithful to those events and not introduce anything contradictory.
If you are writing a series, or multiple books in the same universe, much of the backstory is already defined for you. The trick then is to keep your novel consistent with others in the same set.
Backstory is there for you, the author, to refer to. The better you know your characters, the more believable they will be. And the chances of running into writer’s block will be diminished considerably.
John Bowers is a very prolific science fiction author. His first published science fiction novel, A Vow to Sophia, became a 5-story series called The Fighter Queen Saga. He then published the 3-book Nick Walker, UF Marshal series followed by the 5-part Starport series.
He’s also published a mid-grade novel, Joseph Lexxus and the Drug Runners of Altair.