The backstory of a main character is crucial, demanding, and usually heartbreaking. The best ones are, usually. The starting point of a character’s story defines their journey and ultimately determines the path to the end of the last page. Do they hold their hardships on their sleeves, or are they strong through and through? Are they changing or a static character? How does one decide these things?
Creating a meaningful backstory takes thought, creativity, and sometimes a little bit of help. Here are ten tips to help you get started with creating meaningful and captivating backstories that will have your readers hooked within the first line.
Start with the basics
Start with a blank sheet of paper and write everything that comes to mind when you think about this character. Establish the character’s name, age, race, magical ability, etc. These details will lay the foundation for their backstory. And some of these details may even answer other questions you may have about your story.
Being a Dungeons & Dragons player, I like to organize my characters like I would a character for a campaign. I love the character sheets that are used, It’s so organized and simple. If you’re a visual person, organizing the information in a dating-profile style might be beneficial to you.
Use experiences close to your own
The best way to captivate readers is with experiences to which they can relate. Using experiences from your own life gives your character’s backstory a more authentic feeling. Even if you twist small details of the experience, it can add a small amount of pizzazz to your character’s personality and development. While following classic hero arcs is reliable, don’t be afraid to give it a personal flare of your own.
Flawless characters are overrated
If everyone were perfect, would there be a story? Perhaps, but it may not be very interesting. If you’re not writing a dystopian science fiction novel like Uglies by Scott Westerfield, it’s advisable to avoid creating a flawless character. And to avoid collecting a mile-long list of character traits, pick 3-5 positive and negative traits that you know are going to come into play in your story. How do these traits affect the outcome of the story? How does your character’s backstory fit into the plot?
Play into your character’s emotional wounds and limitations. Make morally gray characters. Use your character’s desires and passion to drive your story.
Give Your Character A Voice
Your characters are the voice that carries the story. Their existence is and should feel as real as if they are sitting right next to you. You should be able to hear their voice as if they were in the room. Readers don’t want characters that ask to exist. They should demand it.
Don’t Give it all away
Don’t give a full summary of your character within the first few pages. That is why they call it a ‘character backstory’ You want to draw your readers into a world. Captivate them. Leave some details to the imagination, or for plot twists. The backstory should not overshadow the main plot unless this character is hellbent on revenging a lost loved one. Besides there are some details that may not apply and may be unnecessary. Trust the process, as you write, your character will reveal themselves.
Character development can be trivial, but rewarding when a writer creates a character that feels real. The feeling of meeting someone that resembles someone you’ve created in your head is a good sign in which you’ve created a powerful character. If you’re going to write an authentic character backstory, write honestly, write passionately. Just write!
Corbett, David. The Compass of Character: Creating Complex Motivation for Compelling Characters in Fiction, Film, and TV: The Four Directional Forces That Guide Your Characters. Writer’s Digest Books, 2019.
Foster, Thomas C. How to Write like a Writer: A Sharp and Subversive Guide to Ignoring Inhibitions, Inviting Inspiration, and Finding Your True Voice. HarperCollins, 2022.
Safford, David. “Character Description: 6 Tips from Stephen King’s Memoir.” The Write Practice, 12 Jan. 2023, thewritepractice.com/character-description/.