In the most basic of definitions, a backstory is anything that happens to a character before the beginning of the story. It’s often referenced in conversations between characters or flashbacks, and often varies between small anecdotes to important information.
Katniss Everdeen, for example, was taught to hunt with a bow and arrow by her father as a child, something that saves her life when she’s forced into The Hunger Games. Not only is this backstory relevant to the plot, but it also makes sense that a character in poverty would need to find unique ways to feed herself and her family. Backstories like this are plot-specific, while others can simply be used to add depth to a character.
Peeta Melark burning the loaves of bread on purpose so he had an excuse to give some to Katniss isn’t just something to add tension between the characters, but it speaks to Peeta’s compassion. Compassion that is seen multiple times across all three books.
Inej in Six of Crows is another example of this as well. Having her be a former trapeze artist, while slightly random, explains her ability to climb buildings and jump across rooftops when pulling off a heist.
If your character starts the story with a unique skill set, there has to be an explanation for it. A teenager shouldn’t be an expert hacker or swordsman without any prior knowledge or training. At the very least, they need to be skilled in a related field where they can easily transfer their abilities. For example, an athlete has the strength and endurance to learn how to fight, they just need someone to teach them specific techniques.
A chemist would likely make a good potions master, someone good at darts may learn how to throw knives. Abilities that come out of nowhere often feel forced or plot-convenient to the reader, making them less interesting to read about.
Backstories are important because they make a character feel real. A reader has to believe that these characters exist outside of the context of the stories. Not every detail has to perfectly tie in, but you also can’t waste time or space with unnecessary information.
We don’t need to hear about every single birthday a character had to know they were loved, but perhaps mentioning a recurring gift a family member got them each year can accomplish the same goal. A backstory can be just as, if not more, important as the plot.
In Summary, a good backstory provides:
Context for any preexisting talents or relationship dynamics
A look into past events that led to your story taking place
Personal stories that add depth to your characters
About the Author: Taelor Daugherty is an English-Literature Major at Agnes Scott College. She is an avid fantasy and romance reader, with an interest in writing in both genres. She is the President of her college’s HerCampus Chapter, where she also writes bi-monthly articles on various subjects.