Episode 186: Backstory Essentials

On May 14th, Kasie and Rex revisited a favorite subject: exposition, this time with the specific lean toward development of a character through the details you leave out. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Backstory: the character side of exposition


  • How do you generate backstory material?
  • How much backstory is too much?
  • How much do you include?
All characters have baggage. How do you use it to make the story compelling?
Photo by Vlada Karpovich on Pexels.com

Link to the podcast

Segment 1

Two weeks ago, we did an episode on lazy writing and came upon this blog talking about plot holes, character under-development and other story-level sins. It picks mostly on Wonder Woman 1984 and Star Wars Episode 7, two films I (Kasie) admittedly liked. But it’s not wrong and it actually makes me cringe to think about how right the author is and whether these scripts needed more work before they went into production.

If so, what does that say about all the crap I’m publishing? Don’t we think movies that actually get made and especially those with ginormous marketing budgets and hype are actually better than my own novice indie suchness? Maybe not.

In any case, the section on exposition caught us as particularly interesting because it’s been a while since we did exposition in the “what not to do” approach during NaNoWriMo in episode 166 and a little more recent, but not much more so when we took on origin stories for the Christmas episode 170

Today, we’re going to approach exposition from a character backstory angle, specifically focused on those things the writer has to know but the audience doesn’t. Let’s start with an experiment. Using our own current main characters, let’s answer some specific questions:

  • Driver’s license stuff: name, height, weight, skin color, eye color, address
  • Origin stuff: family? Siblings? Where was he born? How long did he live there? How much school did he finish? What did he do for fun as a kid? What was a major family trauma he experienced?
  • Off screen stuff: if he’s not in the book, what’s he doing? How does he earn a living? Who does he like to spend time with? What kinds of books does he read? What would his favorite Netflix show be?
  • Daily routine stuff: what time does he wake up and how? Does he eat breakfast? Watch the news? What’s a day in the life of this character look like? How does he feel? Does he exercise? See neighbors? Do chores? Get the mail? Imagine him walking through regular life. What does it look like? A morning commute? Clocking in somewhere?

Segment 2

Why did we walk you through the exhaustive and maybe irrelevant life history of our main characters? Maybe to think about how well we know them? 

Do you need this kind of exercise with every character? Why or why not?

What, if any, of this do you include in the story? How?

The South Carolina Writers Association continues to be the best way to build your writing career in the state. With dozens of chapters organized regionally – Chapin/Irmo, Columbia I, II, and II all here in the area – and virtual chapters aligned by genre – short fiction, poetry, and romance among them – you’re sure to find a supportive group to share your work and get help on revision. Critique groups are essential for growing as a writer and the SCWA is a supportive, encouraging environment. Visit myscwa.org to learn more. 

In our origin story episode, we talked about the need to create some connection between the character’s core wound and their current mission. The damage from then, feeds the passion now. How true is that for every character?

This blog offers seven ways to create and organize the character’s backstory and I think we can talk through which of these is useful for all characters and which of these is overkill for the secondary and background characters:

  1. Brainstorm formative events that shape your characters
  2. Choose where to tell character backstory
  3. Balance telling backstory with showing
  4. Keep backstory relevant to current choices and actions
  5. Strip excess backstory from narration
  6. Use backstory to reveal drives
  7. Draw character background from familiar places

Segment 3

SCWA has opened its digital journal The Petigru Review for submissions from SCWA members only. On May 1, they’ll begin accepting submissions from non-members. They have also opened registration for the Fall Conference in Pawley’s Island, South Carolina. Ever been to a conference at the beach? It’s the best! Make plans to come and register at myscwa.org/events

This blog offers five tips for how to do this backstory writing thing. Let’s unpack them:

  1. Connect the backstory to the present – show how it affects the here and now. Think through the physical, emotional, financial, and social impacts. For example, a divorced character’s social circle is split in half, they may be financially ruined, and emotionally bruised.
  2. Use the backstory to direct their development in this story – consider what triggers they might experience, what causes them to finally take action, to confront something happening, to try to change themselves or their circumstances? What patterns are they desperate to break? Seemingly inevitable outcomes are they desperate to avoid?
  3. Keep your main arc in focus – avoid lengthy flashbacks or seesawing between the present and the past. The past might inform this story, but this story needs to have the bulk of the action, the urgency of the story itself.
  4. Avoid the info dump – all the exposition at once is the sin of NaNoWriMo, as we talked about in episode 166 and it references episode 122 so we’ve gone at this exposition thing more than once. In any case, the info dump means delivering everything-about-the-character all at once. There’s better ways to do it. But they all agree: put the exposition in place before we need it. Don’t wait until the estranged mother shows up to tell us she left the hero when he was six and he has abandonment issues because of it.
  5. Pace how you release the backstories – I first thought this was the same thing as #4 but it’s slightly different. It means releasing backstory gradually so the reader gets a full picture of the character over time and in combination with how the character is behaving now.

Segment 4

SCWA is halfway through the May Paths to Publishing series, a four-part event sequence featuring these topics and speakers:

  • May 3rd Raegan Teller talked about authorpreneurship and taking the business side seriously.
  • May 10th Alexa and Kasie talked indie press publishing and the necessary promotion of one’s own work. 
  • This upcoming week, May 17th Hub City Press is represented by Meg Reid and Anjali Enjeti talking about university and small press business models and opportunities.
  • May 24 Amy Bishop and JC JC Peterson talk about getting an agent, pitching big publishing houses, and the other joys and challenges of working with large publishers.

Use the link above to register. Recordings are only available to registered participants and while SCWA members get a discount, it is a paid series.

Of course the masterclass website is going to have something for us on backstory. So let’s get into any of these we haven’t already talked about:

  • Create a standalone scene from the character’s past
  • Think about cause and effect – what quirks, habits, or tendencies make this character’s experience with the present circumstances unique or meaningful?
  • Let the backstory strengthen secondary characters
  • Use flashbacks to take story breaks and fill in needed exposition.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s