Why Backstory is Essential and How to Use it Correctly 7/21/2020

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by Carmen Peone

Backstory is the backbone of every character, even usIt’s Godgiven and shapes us into the men and women we are created to be. A character’s backstory is essential for stories that rely on empathy because compassion focuses on what the why of what happens means to the character 

Backstory is vital for tension and conflict. Without them, readers tend to close the book and move on. There are three levels of conflict: inner struggles, interpersonal clashes, and external challenges. Without a clear knowledge of your character’s past, they won’t effectively reach their goals. Weaving the three levels of conflict together is pertinent for resolutions to work in harmony. 

You have to answer why the point-of-view or POV character needs so desperately to reach her goals and why. Backstory will offer those answers.  

The most exciting element of story building for me is writing the character’s biography. I love to find out who she is, what she wants, what’s stopping her from getting it, why she needs it, her age, likes, dislikes, family dynamics, career, friends and enemies, and love interests 

The key to using backstory wisely from the first word to the final scene is showing how inner conflict and external actions are inseparable. In other words, a person’s desire drives the need to reach the story goal. Does it not for you?  

Everything a character does and says reveals his or her values, fears, hopes, and desires. When creating backstory for each of your main characters, discover their shame, pride, guilt, forgiveness, fear, bravery, loss, and love. All of these human foundations lend your characters to what they know is possible or not and are the engines that drive behavior.  

Ask yourself what drives you, and then ask it of your characters. I bet you’ll get similar answers.  

You can drop a hint of backstory in the first line and pepper pieces of it throughout the manuscript by showing behavior and not simply telling readers about your POV character. This alone feeds tension and an element of mystery. Do this and readers will keep turning pages late into the night.    

Backstory will also show the tools necessary to press through conflict. What skills does the POV character have that will help them through the tough times? What in their life has taught them to endure and keep climbing their mountains? What will cause them to dig deep in the peak of their crisis, when all seems lost, and keep fighting for what they believe in? 

Find a way to use inner conflict to reveal backstory. Conflict in dialog, an argument per se, is a wonderful tool to use to force a character to address her past and thus expose her inner conflict. This helps both characters identify a problem and come up with a solution.  

The best uses of backstory help shape attitudes, values, and behaviors which help your characters negotiate life and help determine the next move. Knowing where your character is emotionally in each event and what the desired scene goal is, will help you determine what slice of backstory goes where.  

Take a scene from your book. Does it tell too much backstory or is it layered in? Are you showing it in bits and pieces? Can you see backstory’s reflection in your characters?  


About the Author:

Carmen PeoneCarmen Peone has lived in Northeast Washington and on the Colville Confederated Indian Reservation since 1988. She had worked with a Tribal Elder, Marguerite Ensminger, for three years learning the Arrow Lakes Language and various cultural traditions. She owns and trains her horses and competes in local Extreme Challenge and Mountain Trail competitions. With a degree in psychology, the thought of writing never entered her mind, until she married her husband and they moved to the reservation after college. With the love of history and western woman lifestyle, she brings stories of hope, family, relationships, and faith to her novels.

These books were a labor of love, especially the second edition of the True to Heart Trilogy. Thank you to my cover model, Shayna Palmanteer of the Colville Confederated Tribes, for your willingness to be a part of this adventure. Visit my website for information on the workbooks that go along with my young adult books at https://carmenpeone.com/books/.

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