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About back story: My characters tend to have a lot of it, and I understand that this is a good thing. But I also have trouble /pacing/ it throughout the story so that the reader doesn’t get overwhelmed. And it just feels like I’m doing this: IjustlovemycharactersomuchandIwanttotellyoueverythingaboutthemrightawaysothatyoulovethemtooooooooooo. And yeah, that’s annoying and the reader will probably get a headache. So, do you have any tips for pacing character back story?Anonymous
When it comes to revealing backstories, I really think that less is more, and I’ll tell you why.
- Realism: Real people (and good characters) are complicated, multilayered, and have been living their own lives prior to when you met them. However, when you first meet someone, do they pour out their life story to you in a Scheherazade-like epic retelling? Not usually. Usually, you get to know them over time, and you learn new things when they come up in the time you spend together. In time, you may even know quite a lot about that person- but it takes time. Knowing about someone’s history, their childhood, and their current life is a mark of trust and a lot of time spent together. I can only claim to know a handful of people as well as you’d normally get to know the protagonist of a book.
In short- there’s a lot about characters and people that you don’t know. Trying to tell your audience ‘the whole story’ about someone will likely only cause you (and your reader) a headache. While they may learn a great deal about the character over the course of the narrative, they’ll learn it better in bits and pieces.
- Relevance to plot: While it’s good to throughly develop a character’s background for your own purposes, when you’re writing, ask yourself: Is this relevant to the story at hand, or would this be something that would be better placed in a prequel about that character (whether you intend to write one or not).
For example: If I’m telling you a story about how Pen and I got chased by a dog, it’s relevant that she’s scared of dogs after one treed her as a child, and would come up in the narrative naturally. It’s irrelevant that I had a bad experience with lemon popsicles as a child, and would feel out of place.
Additionally, your character will probably be developing and changing within the story- so the focus should be on how they’re becoming a different person than who they were in the times of their backstory. People evolve continually, so really, ‘backstory’ is kind of a broad term. Exceptions include purposefully static characters, characters who are caught in the past themselves, and the like.
- Finally, why it’s good to keep readers in the dark just a little bit: Now, I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase ‘show not tell’ approximately 10^23 times by now. But it applies here too! When possible, it really helps to try and demonstrate a character’s backstory, rather than tell it straight. Harking back to Pen and I’s hypothetical dog adventure- if she turns pale when we go by the dog park, the reader can infer that something happened in her past involving dogs. This in many ways is better than flat telling, because a block of telling backstory can be boring, but if you make it just enough of a puzzle, the reader will feel really clever for having figured out something about the character that wasn’t explicitly stated (and we want them to feel clever, it keeps them interesting). From there, you need to decide if the shown not told detail is a segue in to a written explanation, or a noodle incident. Segues are good if you need to do a lil bit of an infodump that’s relevant and important and all that to the plot. The trick is, keep the reader feeling clever. The ideal is that when you reveal that Pen has a crippling fear of dogs since she was five, the reader screams bloody murder about how they called it. When it comes to a noodle incident (a noodle incident being a past event that is frequently brought up, but not properly explained. ie, ‘Budapest’ in Avengers) the first rule is that is that you never explain the noodle incident. Instead,you let the readers draw their own conclusions or make their own theories, as they will almost invariably be disappointed with your answer. Decide which is better or more suited to your story.
some tips for you include:
- Reveal backstory in digestible lil bites
- Reveal those bites when they come up naturally
- Select which details are relevant to the story at hand, and which are irrelevant
- Try to ‘show not tell’ some parts of your character’s history
That’s it, hope it helps!
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