In writing fiction, creating a realistic world depends on the details. Characters are more developed when they have interesting pasts, pasts that shed light upon who they are in the present and which affect their actions and decisions for the future. By creating a backstory for characters and/or for a fictional world, the author pulls the reader into an already realized and therefore more realistic setting.
Don’t forget the backstory. The backstory consists of those events that happened prior to the main time of the novel. Usually, those events are in the background—they may not be mentioned or even known by the characters, but the author mentions them to the reader, sometimes in just a sentence or two, sometimes in a hint or an image, sometimes as a prologue, sometimes as a flashback or in a character’s memories.
Here are a few simple ways that the backstory makes a novel richer:
Backstories Build Character Motivation
A simple example of a backstory creating character depth and motivation is in Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence.” The novel focuses upon Newland Archer who is engaged to May Welland and eventually will marry her, but Newland finds himself attracted to May’s cousin, Countess Olenska, married but separated from her husband. Early in the novel, Wharton briefly mentions that Newland had previously been attracted to a married woman. Most readers might forget this point, but it reveals depths to Newland’s character that foreshadow and explain his desire for what is forbidden—to be with Countess Olenska.
Backstories Allow for Plot Twists
Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” is about an orphan boy trying to survive in Victorian London. But Oliver had to become an orphan somehow—the backstory is that of his parents, and ultimately, it leads to secrets about his parentage being revealed. A recent film version of “Oliver Twist” even went so far as to begin with the story of how Oliver’s parents met and separated, turning the backstory into a prologue.
Backstories Foreshadow Events to Come
In the “Harry Potter” novels, we are told that Voldemort killed Harry’s parents, and Harry even has a scar on his forehead as a sign of the battle. The backstory of Harry’s parents set up this seven novel series so that Harry ultimately must do battle with Voldemort and avenge his parents’ deaths. That showdown is never lost focus of as a result of the backstory planting the seed.
Backstories Create an Expanding Universe of Possibilities
The backstory fulfills what I have long considered one of the most important observations upon writing fiction ever made. In “Aspects of the Novel,” E.M. Forster states, “Expansion. That is the idea the novelist must cling to. Not completion. Not rounding off but opening out.”
One of the best examples of this expansion exists in the backstory of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz” series, and it is one that novelist Gregory Maguire, most notably, has capitalized on with his novel “Wicked” and its successors. Film viewers know Dorothy goes to visit the Wizard who is a humbug and came to Oz in a balloon, but readers of the books know that many things happened in Oz prior to the Wizard arriving. In Baum’s second book “The Marvelous Land of Oz” the backstory comes forefront when a young boy is discovered to be the enchanted rightful princess of Oz. In subsequent novels, Baum left further hints of Oz’s backstory—how it became a fairyland, how the wicked witches gained power. In “Wicked,” Gregory Maguire reinterpreted this backstory to tell the story from the Wicked Witch of the West’s perspective, allowing the witch to justify her actions and to show that the Wizard in many ways was the wicked one.
Many novels, which we can loosely term “postmodern” today for their desire to play with earlier literary texts, have equally capitalized on existing backstories in novels, or in trying to create backstories based on hints in the original texts. The classic novels by Jane Austen, the Bronte Sisters, Charles Dickens, and many others have had numerous prequels and sequels and spin-offs written in recent years to capitalize on their backstories. For example, in “Wuthering Heights,” Heathcliff is an orphan boy whom Mr. Earnshaw brings home to raise, but was Mr. Earnshaw honest about Heathcliff’s background? Could Heathcliff really be Mr. Earnshaw’s bastard child? If that were the case, the backstory becomes richer and the main text of “Wuthering Heights” inherits many new overtones.
Suggestions for Creating a Backstory
If you are trying to add interest to your novel, consider adding a backstory to it. Here are a few suggestions for backstory ideas that can enrich a storyline:
- Secrets: Nothing makes a good backstory like family secrets revealed. What is the secret? Who knows it? Who finds it out? How is the secret discovered? How does knowing the secret change the main character’s perspective, goals, or decision to act? Lost diaries, forgotten manuscripts, old family heirlooms, courthouse birth and marriage records, or a dying woman who wants to unburden her soul are all great ways to introduce secrets into the novel.
- Someone from the Past: A former lover shows up unexpectedly, creating memories of the past. An old enemy returns to seek revenge. Suddenly, the main character finds that his past has caught up with him, or perhaps his children discover something new they never before suspected about their father.
- Forgotten Memories: A psychiatric patient remembers her true identity, or she remembers being molested as a child, or finally sees the face of her rapist, or a psychiatrist finally pinpoints the event in a person’s past that led to her split personality disorder.
- A Tragic Event: Science fiction novels are great for backstories. In an apocalyptic setting, what happened to make the world the way it is now—a flood, global warming, a nuclear war, an attack by aliens? Or in more realistic novels, does someone’s death in the past still hold sway over characters in the present?
- Conspiracies: “The Da Vinci Code” is a great example. For two thousand years, Jesus’ true bloodline has been kept secret. Or a hidden treasure has been guarded for hundreds of years. The truth behind humanity’s origins is suddenly revealed when an alien spaceship is found.
The backstory can be incorporated into your novel in many ways. Hint at it in the beginning, and then gradually provide more hints so that all can be revealed at the end, or use it to provide character motivation for events to come. Create a mystery and momentum with your backstory that will leave readers totally enmeshed in your novel, anxious to discover secrets from the past, and eager to learn how it will all turn out.
Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.