The Writer's Cohort was a group creative writing graduates from Full Sail University who came together to bring the latest reports in video games, television, film, and literature. The Cohort remains a tight knit group, but the site disbanded in 2016.
Backstory is Literally Everything
by Grady Jane Woodfin
Basically what I want to talk about today is characters and our undying love for them. You see, it’s the depth of the characters in our favorite stories that allows for the audience to connect. But what is it that makes our characters so great?
It is their backstory. It is why they are the way they are.
It’s their likes and dislikes. It’s whether they prefer pickles or no pickles. Splatoon or Destiny. Mustard or mayonnaise or both or neither.
But backstory can be a tricky little bugger. It’s a balancing act. A completely frustrating, annoying, exhausting balancing act, but-- when done properly-- brings a story to its full potential.
Now we know that backstory is key. But it’s a lot easier said than done. How do we write the perfect backstory for our oh-so-worthy characters?
Think of your character as an iceberg in the ocean.
Only a teeny tiny bit of your character is visible to the audience. This is your character’s physical form and their actions in the story.
But under the surface, there is a huge part of your character that the audience doesn’t get to see. This is the backstory. The backstory makes up every thing that your character is. This is their history, personality traits, and wants/needs.
The best way to build backstory is to character build. Basically, breaking down who your character is. As a writer, it’s important to know a vast array of info on our characters. Things like physiology, sociology, psychology, etc. These are the chemical makeup of our characters.
Then, you must discuss events in the character’s life (i.e. backstory) that have shaped them into the person they are today. This part is my favorite. Human beings are so complex, and our characters should be that way too. If our character is horrified of umbrellas, there must be a reason for it, and it has to be in the backstory somewhere even if it isn’t ever mentioned.
It’s important for the writer to know the backstory of all the characters so the writer knows why all the characters are acting the way they are in the story. We, as the audience, may not get why they just threw an umbrella off the side of a mountain, but the writer knows. This adds depth.
But back to the balancing act. It is often times a little hard to get backstory just right. Sometimes we get too close to a project, and it is hard to see that we might be telling a little too much about a character. There are ways to hint at backstory without being so heavy handed.
Anyone who has watched Orange is the New Black has been blessed by superb backstory. That’s literally what OITNB is all about. Each episode, it takes one of the characters and shows flashbacks of their life that led up to them being in prison. In season 3, OITNB took the antagonist of season 2, gave her an episode showing her backstory, and she suddenly became one of the most relatable characters on the show.
This is a perfect example of how some of the worst characters in the world, become one of our favorites. There’s something really cool about seeing a scene and saying, “Oh, man, well, if that had happened to me, I’d probably be that way, too.”
That’s what good backstory is.
But, of course, there is always a time to tell and a time not to tell.
Sometimes there are key moments when the audience needs to understand why a character is the way they are. In these moments backstory is necessary. It can happen in a flashback, or it could be just a simple line in the story.
But, alas, there are plenty of times when backstory is better left unsaid. Sometimes the audience doesn’t need to be told everything, and it’s fun to try and understand why characters are reacting the way they are.
The big thing is to have fun while also creating your characters. One of my favorite things (and Brooke’s, too) is to make music playlists for our characters. I like to pick out songs I think my character would listen to. It really helps get into the mindset.
So, of course, you should know about the trauma that your character experienced in fifth grade, but you should also try and focus on little things like who they are on the surface.
Creating backstory is a blast, and everyone has a unique way of going about it. What are some of your favorite characters? Do they have a really cool backstory? Tell us all about.