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In fiction, backstory is a character’s history. It’s the life of the character that occurred prior to the start of the story. Backstory is the foundation upon which a writer knows his or her character as intimately as you might know your child, lifelong friend, or spouse. Main characters typically have very detailed backstories, while backstories for secondary characters might be more general.
Our experiences to date make us who we are. The people we’ve known and events we have undergone, good and bad, shape our emotional and intellectual characters. They help to define our abilities, challenges and especially our choices. Creating a main fictional character that is believable and compelling requires giving that character such a history — a biography that encompasses every major event and influence that has affected the character.
Although backstory can take as much work to build as the story itself, it does not typically appear in the story. Instead we see the effects of backstory by watching the character act and react to events. It is much easier for a writer to build plot with main characters that have been fully developed, as the characters’ actions will be consistent within the context of their backstories.
A writer might start the backstory for a particular character with the character’s parents, or even ancestors. Was the child born out of wedlock at a time when this was taboo? Was the character adopted? A twin? Part of a large family? If so, was he or she the youngest, oldest or a middle child? Maybe he was in foster care, an orphanage, or conversely, born into royalty. All aspects of social upbringing come into backstory, including where and when the child was born, the financial, social and political environment, and education, or lack thereof.
To illustrate the power of backstory, consider a character who is a beat cop in an inner city district, present day. We’ll call him Officer Williams. Suppose we’re watching Officer Williams exit his patrol vehicle in the middle of the night to approach a group of young men in gang colors, loitering in front of a liquor store. The men watch the cop approaching, one of them reaching into his jacket to remove something. It might be a gun or maybe a cell phone. The Officer sees, but how does he react?
The answer is in his backstory. Was Officer Williams raised on these streets? Does he know these young men? Do they share the same racial background? Has he ever been a victim of gang violence? Or is Officer Williams a fish out of water on these streets? A transplant from the Midwest? If so, is he naïve and trusting, or prejudiced and overly suspicious? A myriad of factors play into every thought and movement of a character, each riding on his or her unique backstory.
In science fiction where setting is often the main character, backstories might be more generalized. This allows the reader or audience to identify with the character more fully as they travel through this strange world, taking the viewer with them. Action heroes are also generally less developed, as the attraction of the genre is the action itself versus character development. This is not to imply that backstory is absent or insignificant.
Often villains also have limited backstory, set up to simply be foils to the main character. Slasher films commonly feature a psychopath on the loose whose only real requirements are blood lust, a knack for escape, and a gimmick that separates it from other slashers. Highly developed villains also exist, however, including the delectably deranged Dr. Hannibal Lecter of The Silence of the Lambs, (based on a novel by Thomas Harris), George Lucas’s Darth Vader of Star Wars, and J.K. Rowling’s Voldemort of Harry Potter fame.
Backstory is time consuming but is a necessary part of building solid characters that are true to life, and will ring true to audiences or readers. Backstories can also be written for places or settings, such as a town, school, mansion, planet or universe. The better you know the world in which your story takes place, the more authentic it will be to others.
In acting schools, it is often taught that an actor should not concentrate too much on his backstory because this takes away from the acting. My sister did a little bit of theater and she also agrees with this. She prefers to know the character she is playing from the whole story because it allows her to live the character within that context. Also, most script writers do not write a detailed backstory on all characters, so it is up to the actors to develop their characters themselves.
I notice that in films back stories are either not shown at all, are shown in the very beginning of the film or throughout the film in small pieces. I prefer movies which show back stories because it allows me to see and think about the psychology of the character. I think that back stories that are shown in the beginning of a film take away from the intrigue of a character. If back stories are shared slowly and in pieces throughout the film, I feel like I always have something to look forward to about that character. As if there is always another piece of the puzzle that is missing.
For example, in Slumdog Millionaire, the main character kept going back to an experience in his past when a new question was asked on the show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" It was the back story of the character that determined the story of the film, and it was necessary for us to see that. That film would not have been what it was if it the back story had not been shared with the viewer throughout.