Character Backstory: How Much is Too Much?

By Megan Burkhart, a professional writing student at Taylor University

In the writing world, you may get mixed answers about writing detailed character backstories. Some people may advise you to write pages and pages of background on your character’s life, from the moment he was born until the moment your story starts. Others will tell you to scrap that and keep backstory minimal.

How can you reconcile these two ends of the spectrum?

Well, you need to evaluate the pros and cons to see what works best for you. I’ll start with advocating for the extensive backstory.

Extensive backstories can have their place in your writing process. Characters are what make a story come to life. Your characters need to be three-dimensional, and the more you know your characters, the more they will come to life on the page. Backstory helps create complexity in your characters because the reader only sees the tip of the iceberg in your story. Ninety percent of any given character in your book lies beneath the surface, and readers will understand there’s more to the character than meets the eye.

On the downside, however, the more details you have about a character, the more likely you are to use them in your story. And not all details are relevant to the story. If not handled well, the tip of the iceberg rises until you’ve got three-quarters of it above the surface. This often means you’ve given your readers an “info dump” that only serves to slow them down as they read.

At the other end of the spectrum is limited backstory. In other words, only develop the backstory that’s crucial to understanding the story. Often, when I write, the backstory develops as I go, and my characters become more nuanced and complex as I discover them. This works because I’m a pantser, and I don’t plot things out much. You may be more of a plotter, but that doesn’t mean you have to know everything. Leave some room for discovery along the way.

Of course, limited backstory has its cons too. If not handled well, characters can seem flat or the readers may find themselves confused because they are lacking important information. When you start with limited backstory, you’ll often have to go back and flesh things out later, which means more work in the revision process. You have to decide what works best for you.

Characters are the driving force in a story. They propel you into adventure alongside them, so don’t bog the story down with unneeded backstory. Your story is happening now, not back then. Great backstory weaves itself in subtly.

Strike the right balance, and your story will resonate with the reader every time.

One comment

  1. What I’m wondering is how much back story are you supposed to give someone for them to be considered three dimensional? Like do you have to flesh them out all the way since they were babies/children or can you do just some back story? I’m assuming most people consider the latter as 3 dimensional because in film that’s critically well received and books as well it seems there’s just some back story to inform the plot rather than tracing everything to their childhood (Casablanca, Cowboy Bebop, Gatsby etc)…


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