1. curvedbean

    curvedbean New Member

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    How much backstory is too much?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by curvedbean, Nov 17, 2017.

    Hey everyone! I've been trying to write a fantasy novel for the last 6 months and I only have about a chapter and a half so far. This is harder than I thought it was going to be. I do have a full time job so I can only write when I have time. Most of my time has been spent coming up with interesting characters, their backstories were only supposed to be a few details for me to keep in mind but have since turned into multiple pages of individual history for each of them. Which brings me to my question...

    "HOW MUCH BACKSTORY IS TOO MUCH?"

    None of my characters stories will be included in the novel itself, only the parts I feel are important will be mentioned or alluded to. This novel is about the characters as a whole. Unfortunately I feel I have been writing individual histories as opposed to my actual adventure for them. So how do I find a cutoff point for the backstories of my protagonists, villains and even my supporting characters? Any advice would be welcome and appreciated! I just want to get on with my story, but every time I start to get back to it, I think of some other interesting detail I could add to one of my characters. Please Help!!!
     
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  2. LostThePlot

    LostThePlot Naysmith Contributor

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    Broadly speaking only include the back story that effects this story. You can dress that with a bit more to flesh out the characters but in general if we are hearing about what happened to them before now it better be because it effects something in the present. You don't have to go into huge detail either. Just a line about whatever caper they got into that taught them how to pick locks or whatever; that's fine. Remember; your book is supposed to be the most interesting time in these characters lives, so make sure that you stay focused on now and what makes that interesting, because if not, well why aren't you telling us that story that is the most interesting part of these people's lives?
     
  3. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    I don't do backstory. I discover things about the characters as I write them. This does mean that i sometime need to change or remove scenes (Making my female protagonist an absolute non-drinker did sort of require some editing of that hangover scene :)) but so far it works for me.
     
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  4. archer88i

    archer88i Banned Contributor

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    Backstory is something that, generally speaking, I discover while writing the actual story. What this means in practice is that the first draft is an opportunity to explore characters and possibilities and will never be useful as an actual book.
     
  5. OJB

    OJB A Mean Old Man Contributor

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    I put very little backstory into my story (maybe 50 words?).

    In fact, I think the only 'bit' of backstory I have in my current WIP is that the main villain's parents 'died in a murder-suicide involving poisonous spiders.'

    Everything else is pretty much focused on the 'now' of the story.
     
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  6. EdFromNY

    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    You should only include as much backstory as the reader needs to know. Not one word more.

    For the most part, backstory is something the writer needs to know, not the reader.
     
  7. minstrel

    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Supporter Contributor

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    Don't worry about writing backstory. Just write the actual story; if you do that with sufficient interest and detail, you'll find yourself filling in backstory as you go, so subtly that the reader will probably not notice. In fact, you as the writer might not notice.

    Just avoid the kind of thing Stephen King did in The Stand (unabridged version). He included so much backstory that his characters didn't even meet each other (or confront the story's major problem) for something like the first three hundred pages of the book. I got so bored I just put the book aside at that point and never picked it up again. What a giant yawner. King bored me.

    For years and years, my sig on this forum has been "Don't bore the reader." I regard that as the only real rule of writing. You can do whatever you want: use adverbs, semicolons, passive voice, etc; you can open with a description of the weather or with a character waking up; you can leave out anything resembling a "hook" on the first page (or anywhere) and generally violate anything anyone else regards as a rule; just don't bore the reader.

    If your backstory bores the reader, like Stephen King's did in The Stand, you have a choice: a) make it interesting, or b) get rid of it.
     
  8. GingerCoffee

    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    This can't be emphasized enough. It's fine to write the backstory, outline it, rough draft it, whatever. Then put it aside. Keep in mind as you start getting to the actual story you want on that paper, the reader doesn't need to know all that.

    You think they do as you begin to write because it seems to you readers won't understand your characters or the story without knowing all the motivation and things that you know and that led up to the present.

    If the backstory is part of the story, then it's not backstory, it's story. And if it is backstory and not part of the story otherwise, chances are your characters and story will reveal those motives and underlying events without any kind of info-dump at all.
     
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  9. InsaneXade

    InsaneXade Member

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    The character's backstory is like salt, you only need a little and only if the dish would taste better with it rather than without it. Example, adding salt to a ham ruins it but adding salt to eggs or french fries enhances the flavor.

    Now, you the author you need to know their backstory, as this often forms who the character is and what they do with your story. I too often find it's best to write the rough draft and include pages of backstory. Then I go back and cut it out into its own scrivener part under Character Backstories, go through it and take little snippets out to sprinkle through the book on an as-needed basis.

    Example: Aden has a deep-rooted of magic at the beginning of the book. This stems from a nasty incident when he was five years old involving his uncle David and a botched spell. Do I go into great detail about this spell, what it was supposed to do and why Aden was there? No, I do not. I simply say the following paragraph.

    Aden paced across the clearing. “When I was five, we went to visit my Uncle David. Aunt Alisha sent me up with his lunch. Next I knew I woke up in Shellyville Hospital. Uncle David was in the next bed. They released us a couple months later. He tried a spell that was too powerful for him and it blew up in his face.”

    Originally, I had a much longer version of it involving the spell, the injuries, and what he was told in the hospital, but I compacted it into a punchy paragraph and wrapped it up with what really happened. Young Aden walked away with the thought that magic is very dangerous and it shaped him into the young man who avoided magic at all costs until he became a wizard. He would run from his uncle if he used magic until his uncle got the hint and never used it near him again.

    That's my backstory is like salt theory. I hope you enjoyed it and now I have something to add to my signature here. Have a nice day!
     
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  10. The Broken Soul Project

    The Broken Soul Project Active Member

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    The big theme of my novel is the consequences of past mistakes, so the backstory is a prevalant thing. However it's only being used as a tool to propel the characters understanding of themselves, or certain situations. For example one of my characters ends up in a sticky situation, and starts becoming uncooperative with the rest of the team. A characters words brings up a conversation he had in the past with his friends that reminds him of what he needs to do.
    I know the history of these characters, but if it doesn't affect the plot or subplots i tend to skip out on it.
     
    Last edited: Nov 19, 2017
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  11. LazyBear

    LazyBear Banned

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    I always get confused when a book changes everything to another time because it is hard enough to figure out who is saying what when everyone talks in the same way. I only use what I can fit into a small dialog or a short abstract.
     
  12. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

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    As long as people don't get the notion in their heads that 'backstory=BAD' I'm good to go with this theory. Don't bore your reader. If you want to start with even extensive backstory (many good, cherished books do) make sure it's relevant and written as interestingly as the rest of your story. That way nobody is going to notice it's backstory. Backstory does not equal infodump. Or at least it shouldn't.

    Sometimes it's very important for the reader to know backstory. The idea that only the 'present' story needs to be told is another one of those so-called rules that simply isn't true.

    Nobody arrives at today without having a yesterday (unless you're a newborn baby.) The yesterday is what got you where you are today, and made you the person you are. It's the same for everybody else you encounter.

    One of the first things people ask each other when they first meet is 'where are you from?' If you're a thousand miles away from where you grew up and you meet somebody who happens to be from your home town—that will matter. Backstory can matter a lot. It can help shape any new relationship. I react with a lot of interest to somebody who comes from the same place I did, and maybe even knows people I used to know. However, if I don't know where they came from, and am unaware of their backstory, this special connection won't happen.

    Don't be afraid of showing the past—if the connection to it matters. Just be careful to do it in a way that makes people more interested in the story, not less.
     
    Last edited: Nov 22, 2017
  13. truthbeckons

    truthbeckons Active Member

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    I think you can answer this question the same way you can answer just about any 'how much...' question about putting your story together: as much as serves something integral to your story.

    If you can cut something without the story feeling incomplete to the reader, cut it. How many characters do you need? Enough to tell your story and no more. How much description should you use? Enough to set the scene or the mood or reflect a character or whatever your purpose is, and no more. So how much backstory should you include? As much as is necessary for your story. If you're not clear on what the core of your story is and why you're telling it, you've got much more important questions to ask yourself than the amount of backstory to include, because that's how you'll know the answer to that question.

    It might help to think not in terms of story/backstory, but how much of a character's life history is an inextricable part of the story you're telling. If you could just put whatever you have in mind in an encyclopaedia for your story world and leave the story functionally intact, then you should leave those tidbits to yourself or add them in when you find some way that they serve the story.

    Serving the story is fundamental. Otherwise you're just indulging yourself with fluff, and you'll never find a sensible starting or ending point.
     
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  14. LostThePlot

    LostThePlot Naysmith Contributor

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    Emphatically this.

    I am all for minimalism in writing. But when you do backstory properly it doesn't even occur to people that they are being given back story. They are being given an insight into a character, a deeper look at how this world works, a sense of how these relationships work together. It's ok to look outside your story. It's ok to not have a story that is 100% self contained. The question isn't about how much backstory you should include. That question almost answers itself; whatever backstory your story needs. The question is really about doing back story well.
     
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  15. Thundair

    Thundair Contributor Contributor

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    I use a backstory to introduce a character/s that will be pertinent latter. Some have been there to save the day, and others have made things worse.
    I write just enough to show where they came from and why their there at that crucial time.
     
  16. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

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    Indulging yourself with fluff. I like how you put that notion. And yes. I think many writers are guilty of that. I'm writing about this because I love it. Or because it's fun. Or because I CAN. However, when you do your edit, you need to be able to distinguish the parts of the story where you did indulge yourself.

    Here's the thing, though. Sometimes fluff can be worth keeping, if it also interests your readers. You won't know for sure if that happens until you get some feedback. But the notion that every story has to be pared back to the barest minimum is probably why lots of books I read these days (that are recently written) seem empty to me. There is often no sense of journey or joy in them, because it's all 'what is necessary to the story.' I personally enjoy learning from other people's fluff, as long as it doesn't derail the story train. After all, life is filled with fluff, isn't it? And I enjoy other people's fluff as much as my own, really, if it enriches the story.
     
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  17. minstrel

    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Supporter Contributor

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    If I could like this 1000 times, I would. It should be cast in bronze and set over the marble entryway to the Hall of Writing. Thank you, @jannert.

    And if I love it, why wouldn't my readers? They're people like me, or they wouldn't be reading my book in the first place. I hunger for my fluff and I expect my readers would, too. I hunger for John Steinbeck's fluff, and Herman Melville's, and Rudyard Kipling's, and Joseph Conrad's. James Joyce's and Samuel R. Delany's and Peter Matthiessen's. And the great gobs of fluff that constitute the oeuvre of Thomas Wolfe.

    So, yes, I stand in defense of fluff. It's what separates novelists from newspaper reporters.

    :)
     
  18. truthbeckons

    truthbeckons Active Member

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    I wouldn't call it 'fluff' if it can be justified. A good story will obviously be more than barebones, but the meat and everything else is still there for a reason. If 'fluff' belongs where it is, it's doing something for the story as a whole, and therefore it's not really 'fluff' by definition.

    It's hard to tell the difference, which is where you have to ask yourself if you can connect it to the core of the story. I think it's especially easy for amateur writers struggle in particular with discerning whether a particular clump of words are adding something to the big picture, but that can be difficult for anyone obviously, especially when you're discovering your story through your process.
     
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  19. MythMachine

    MythMachine Active Member

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    In order to justify backstory, you must try to develop a character worthy of such. I can't tell you how many minor characters I've had to suffer through pointless flashbacks into their tragic past, whether reading a story or watching a show or movie, which consequentially makes me want to batter my head and stick it into a deep fryer. (beer battered of course)
    Like, why do I need to know about Sam I Am's pet golden retriever named Sherbert who died while saving him from drowning in a river twenty years ago? I only care about his green eggs and ham, man!

    In all seriousness, backstory isn't bad until you add it pointlessly, or to add unnecessary drama. Some characters can be perfect with no backstory at all, even main characters. The sense of mystery as the story progresses can help draw your readers into discovering their personality, and maybe a bit of history here and there.
     
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  20. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin Funky like your grandpa's drawers.... Staff Contributor

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    There's nothing inherently wrong with backstory so long as it's metered out appropriately. I think the big bugaboo about backstory is that novice writers can't seem to get into a scene or a character without first slathering the backstory over the opening pages/paragraphs. The same can be said about info-dumps, which tend to play better in the middle of a story. It's when they're front-loaded before context has been established that bad things happen.
     
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  21. Not Ready to Say

    Not Ready to Say Active Member

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    I mean, how much backstory do YOU think is enough? I personally write in small events in their lives. An explanation for a scar or something like that. A character without a backstory is like a new-born baby, it hasn't interacted with the world yet. I'd say include how they've interacted with other characters and some key events in their life that you think might end up being part of the story.
     
  22. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    But not everyone is a minimalist writer and not every detail that doesn't advance a plot is useless. I've heard the advice you're giving before, but I don't think it's meant to be as strict as you're presenting it. When I'm writing I don't think about whether or not everything I put down advances the story. I'm just telling a story and what happened to certain characters before a story sometimes is worth saying even if it's not driving the story forward. A story isn't a clean race to the finish line where you really don't want any baggage. It's more of a dirty race where it helps to have a bag of tricks and use them because you can win that way too. Sorry if that makes no sense.

    Listen to the glass owl...

     
  23. LostThePlot

    LostThePlot Naysmith Contributor

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    It's always a golden mean thing. You can do too much and you can do too little. And somewhere in the middle lies where you want to be. There's nothing wrong with giving us a more holistic picture of who these characters are and what they've been through before. Because there is another side to a book beyond the plot; the characters matter to and we need to know who they are and what drives them and sympathize with what they are going through. And again, you can go too far with that. It's not a bad thing to give us insights into what makes a character who they are today and you should feel free to write that; but equally you should be asking yourself if this is something that is helping or not. If the audience already loves your character then their backstory probably won't add much. But if you have a complex shades-of-grey character knowing about their terrible childhood can help to give that sense of sympathy even when they are doing bad thing. And it does in the end come down to asking yourself if we need this or not. If knowing the backstory impacts how the character reads then that's fine. If it doesn't then you shouldn't keep it it. And you definitely shouldn't just write stuff because you really like it, you do need to be dispassionate. It really is on a case by case basis.
     
  24. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    I think the last thing a writer should be is dispassionate.
     
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  25. EdFromNY

    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    I agree with this. There are details that don't move the plot along, but give the reader insight into the character. It may be through something from the past, her thoughts, or even her immediate physical surroundings. And those are important for the reader to know. The writer who reviewed my current project - she writes within my genre - consistently made points asking for more details - "What is she thinking?" "What does the squad room look like?" "What really happened between her and her father?" Some of these were things I myself hadn't given sufficient thought, and going back and filling in the blanks didn't just make my ms better (and, I hope, more appealing to an agent!), it was enormous fun to do. In fact, I've never enjoyed editing a project as much as I did this one.

    Novice writers aspiring to be published are caught in a bind. If we've studied the marketplace and what the top agents are saying, we know that we have to keep our word counts restricted. Forget 100K, it's more like 90K these days. So, the minimalist approach can be very appealing. But you have to be careful not to cut what really does enrich your work. OTOH, one has to avoid the temptation to include material that the writer needs to know but the reader doesn't. It's not something that lends itself to hard-and-fast "rules". Like most things in writing.
     
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