5 Strategies for Writing Compelling Character Backstory
How can you develop characters that will keep your readers glued to the pages? Their backstory plays a huge part in getting it right—characters don’t come into existence on the first page of your story.
But don’t worry, you don’t need to chronicle your hero’s memoirs before you can start writing your story! We’ve come up with five strategies that will help you figure out the relevant details of your character’s past and how to incorporate them into your story.
5 Strategies to create compelling character backstories
Write your character’s Origin Scene
The Origin Scene refers to an event in your hero’s past, where a psychological wound was inflicted upon them. Over the years, skin might have grown over this wound, hiding it away from sight—quite often even from the hero themself—but that “shard of glass” is still wreaking havoc when the story starts.
Why is this character background so important? We may not know what it’s like to have magic or live in a galaxy far, far away, but we do know what it’s like to ache on the inside. To lose someone we care about. To be betrayed by someone we considered a friend.
Tapping into that universal pain will establish an emotional connection between your characters and your readers, even though they’re worlds or centuries apart! It will help you incorporate your character’s backstory into your story in a way that feels authentic, rather than just summing up some dry details from their biography.
In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Katniss flashes back to when she was 11 and Peeta threw her two charred loaves of bread. With her father dead, her mother suffering from depression, and no way to put food on the table, Katniss had hit rock bottom. Worse, she feared her sister ending up in a harsh community home—something soft-natured Prim wouldn’t have survived.
Even if you only sprinkle bits of your Origin Scene throughout your story and don’t end up using it in a flashback scene, writing it all out for yourself—including setting, dialogue, and thoughts—will make your character’s wound feel more realistic whenever you do write about them in the story.
Find your character’s Why
A hero without a cause is like a spluttering car running out of fuel—not going anywhere anytime soon. But often, their motivation—the reason they want what they want—makes your reader connect with your protagonist. "Why" is a question you just can’t ask your hero enough! It informs their choices and actions, and the answer to that ever-looming question is rooted in your character’s backstory. So be that annoying toddler, incessantly trailing your characters’ every move while you bombard them with an avalanche of why’s! Why do you want that? Why do you care? Why did you do this and not that? Why? Why? Why?
In the Harry Potter series, Harry’s goal is to defeat Voldemort, but not simply because he wants to avenge his parents’ murder. Despite everything Harry’s been through, he’s not a vindictive person. What Harry fears most is losing the family he’s found at Hogwarts, because all he’s ever known before are the abusive Dursleys. Harry’s "why" goes way beyond revenge—if Voldemort wins, Harry loses everything that matters to him.
Dive into the world where your character grew up
The family and the world your character was born into will color their perspective of the world when they get older, so it’s a significant part of your character’s backstory. Did they grow up poor, or was there always enough food on the table? Did they grow up in a safe environment, or did they always have to sleep with one eye open? Did they have friends, and how did they do in school? Did they even have the opportunity to go to school? Questions you can ask to flesh this out are limitless, but Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a useful tool that can help you determine how your character’s needs in the following areas are met:
- Physiological (food, water, warmth, rest, shelter)
- Safety (personal, emotional, and financial security, health)
- Love and belonging (family, friendship, intimacy)
- Esteem (prestige, self-respect, respect from others, recognition)
- Self-actualization (the need and ability to realize one’s potential)
In Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince, Jude Duarte, the story's protagonist, has witnessed her parents being murdered by Madoc, who then takes Jude and her sisters into the faerie realm. Though Jude's physiological needs are met (she has food and shelter), she’s still living under the guard of the man who killed her parents in a realm where, without having any magic at her disposal, she’s the odd one out. However, growing up in such a hostile environment has made Jude cunning and determined to succeed, and she does have one huge advantage in the faerie world—contrary to the fair folk: Jude has the ability to lie. When the story starts, Jude wants nothing more than to become a knight in the Summer Court, which is motivated by her need for esteem and self-actualization.
Work backward from your stasis=death
Your hero might think everything’s hunky-dory, but you should make it clear to the reader that their life isn’t all it is cracked up to be. If you’re familiar with the Save the Cat! terminology, you might’ve already heard about the “stasis=death” moment. It’s a scene or moment at the beginning of your novel that marks a pivotal point in your hero’s life that signals that if they keep going down this track, they’ll face psychological and, in some cases, even physical death.
At the start of Alexandra Brocken’s Lore, the titular character takes part in underground fighting to numb the pain of losing her mentor. She’s risking her health and life, and she doesn’t even care… Lore is already on the verge of psychological death, and if she continues down this road, she might get seriously hurt physically as well. So why and how did Lore end up in this situation in the first place? The answer to that is in her past.
So how did your hero get to their stasis=death point? Working backward from this moment will be a significant piece in the puzzle of your hero’s life before your story begins. And if you do it in a way that ties their backstory directly into the opening of your story, it will raise delicious questions that’ll keep your reader on the edge of their seat.
Resist the urge to infodump!
You want your reader to care about your characters right off the bat, but… it’s difficult to care about someone we’ve just met, right? Resist the urge to infodump your hero’s backstory on the first page (and yes, that also goes for backstory in prologues!). Think of it as a date—a couple of well-placed tidbits raise questions and make you eager to find out more, but a date who starts chronicling their life story from the moment they took their first breath will probably make you run for the hills faster than you can say ‘bye now’!
In the first chapter of her novel Ninth House, Leigh Bardugo uses details from her story’s setting to trigger Alex Stern’s past memories. A piece of music from the movie Scarface makes Alex think of a guy from her past whose favorite movie was Scarface. It doesn’t take more than a paragraph, but it fits seamlessly with the rest of the scene and raises questions without a hint of info-dumping.
Ready to write better character backstory?
A final word of advice: it’s good to realize that not everything you dredge up from the trenches of your character’s past will end up in your story. That’s completely fine! But for you as a writer, getting up close and personal with your hero and other significant characters will make them start to feel real to you. And that will make it much easier for your readers to connect with them as well!