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Monday, June 1, 2015

Tips #5 for Fiction Writers: How is Your Backstory?

Tip #5  How is your backstory?

By Peter Gilboy

Let’s face it, you have issues. Or you had them. Or you’re still working them out. You know which ones—the unresolved conflicts from childhood, from a bad marriage, wounds from something you saw as a child or an adult. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that as an author, you can use them. 

The reason some novels aren’t as compelling as some other novels is because the characters’ don’t have their own issues. They only do things and say things. They fall in love. They fight crime. Or they fight the law. They have great sex. Or weird sex. They quit their job. They fight with their husbands or wives or parents or friends.

And our readers don’t feel them. They aren’t real.

Your characters must have issues. Something haunts them. Or they have a fatal flaw. Otherwise they are not all that interesting. They are, as is said in the business, like cardboard characters.

What is backstory?  Backstory is everything that happened before your story starts. It’s the subtext to your story and what your characters do, and in a lot of cases, it explains your whole story.

In other words, your story doesn’t begin at the beginning. It begins before the beginning.

Your backstory doesn’t have to be said.
Text is what you say. Subtext is what you don’t say, but which is there nonetheless.

Take Batman, for example. We know that his backstory is the reason he does what he does, the reason he is the dark knight, the reason he is morose and even depressed; Bruce Wayne is the person he is because, as a boy, he saw his parents gunned down by a small-time criminal. Right then, before Joker, before all the other villains, Batman begins. 

These murders are the subtext to each episode whether on film or comic books. In some episodes the murders aren’t even mentioned. They don’t need to be. Even if we don’t know the backstory at all, at some level we know that something is wrong with him. Perhaps wonderfully wrong. We might not know exactly what it is or why, but without a past like that, there would be no person like that. Batman has big issues.

Or take the suburb novel In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien. It’s a tame title to what is definitely not a tame story. It takes place in Minnesota. But John and Kathy Wade’s backstory is clear: Vietnam. No, not the Vietnam we think we know. The backstory of John Wade in Vietnam doesn’t just move the story forward; it launches. The war we’ve all heard about, and maybe are tired of hearing about, is a stunning backdrop to a wholly different and utterly compelling story.
What happens when the CIAgets inside your mine?

In my novel, OperationFantasy Plan, Peter Gaines is kicked out of the CIA after 17 years and he doesn’t know why. He can go forward now, and see Yellowstone, Rushmore, all the places he’s never seen in the country which is his own, but which he hasn’t seen because he’s been operational in so many other countries

But something haunts Peter Gaines. Something he did in Thailand. Years ago. He realizes that he can’t go forward with his new life yet. First he has to go back and undo something he’s done.
That’s the backstory. The rest is the story going forward, and what unravels for him personally as well as internationally as he tries to right this single terrible wrong.

How do we build a backstory?
Begin by considering your own issues, your own backstory. What makes you tick? What makes you different? What makes you write? What draws you to what you read? What are your quirky personal habits? Your quirky sexual habits? What causes you to be lazy? Or to work hard? What don’t others know about you but nevertheless makes you who you are? 

Then Interview your characters:
What is their home background? Geographical location, parents’ history, interactions with parents, family problems such as alcoholism, molestation, inability to be affectionate, playing around. Or were the families of your characters perfect, hardworking, honest, unafraid, thrifty and brave. Probably not. What flaws do they have? Make a list--one, two, three. What is their economic background? Has family fortune gone up and down? Down and up? Just down? What political views do they hold?  What religious views? What is their formal and informal education? What do they read? Or, perhaps don’t read. That’s important too.

What are your characters afraid of?  Something as simple as spiders? Or maybe snakes, like Indiana Jones. Or are they afraid of success? Or failure? Or marriage? Or divorce? Or death? Or the law? Or maybe God?

She knows the darkest lie of all.
What values do your characters hold? What do they hold dearest to themselves? What do they consider right and wrong? What line won’t they cross? What are they looking for in a friend or a lover? What kind of person are they attracted to?

What is the most significant event in your characters’ lives? Start by asking yourself what the most significant even in your life is. Loss of a parent? Some other physical or emotion event? A time at war? A time when you came home from war? The finding of a loving partner? A marriage? Or loss of a loving partner? The loss of a job. An especially humiliating event?
Remember too, that while others may not know us well, our own personal backstories are always with us. They are present to us, but hidden from others. To write real characters we have to be our own psychologist as well as the psychologist of our characters.

Don’t make your characters’ issues too familiar. Struggles with alcoholism, for example. We’ve read that story enough times. If your main character is an alcoholic, he’s going to have to be really different in some other way.

Often we build our characters backward.
We start with a person and a setting, and see how they react to some event. We let them surprise us. Often they do. Then we go back and try to explain to ourselves why they acted that way.  And as we go forward with the story, the character we thought we knew may surprise us again, or may change, become violent, or more loving. Then go back and build the reasons he or she has done what they’ve done.

The backstories of our characters don’t have to be overt at all. They don’t ever have to be fully spelled out.  But we have to know what they are because we have to understand them. If we write well, our readers will feel the presence of the backstories even if we haven’t spelled it out for them.
This is the story of
what really happened to Madeleine

It is sometimes said that our characters are really pieces of their authors. Perhaps that’s true. But if it is true, and if our story is fiction and yet with authentically human troubles and faults, our readers will find their own backstories inside our stories. Then our readers won’t just be looking down at the page. They will be drawn into the story itself, even hooked, because we’re reminding them of who they are, as well as showing them who our characters are. 

Peter Gilboy is a former ditch digger, short order cook, bartender, truck driver, soldier, counselor and academic.  He has been in jail only once. Peter almost always takes his meds.  
His website is    You can contact him at

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