Developing a Backstory

The backstory of a character is important to story development. Who is your character? What is your character’s motivation? How is your character likely to achieve his/her goals? When does your character exist? Why does your character exist? Where does your character originate from?

To answer these questions, you must consider your character’s frame of reference… The all important backstory. There are three things to consider when contemplating your character’s backstory:

  • The Physical
  • The Social
  • The Emotional

The Physical

This section deals with physical aspects of your character. Things like weight, height, facial features, hair colour, etc. Does your character have any identifying features like tattoos, scars, a limp? how does your character walk, talk, eat, or smile?

Think through all aspects of the physical to round out your character’s being. Too much detail and your character will fail to impress, as there will be too much for the reader to take in. Think sensory overload. When your reader reads pages of detail… To exaggerate… Some of the detail is lost. To do this correctly, you must spread the detail around like fertilizer on a field.

If you over fertilize one section of crops, and do not spread enough on the other sections, the under fertilized sections will grow stunted, and the over fertilized section will burn readily, as if your readers were the sun. When you introduce your character, bit by bit, throughout the story, more and more details will stick with the reader.

The Social

This element of your character’s backstory encompasses the interactions they have with others. Are they religious? What job does the character have? Hangouts? Hobbies? Introverted? Extroverted?

A character who hacks computers in their free time may be introverted and have no friends, or extroverted through online associations… But working at 7-11 is indicative of their social standing, especially if the character is forty something and not a manager.

Just because the character is religious does not mean they have to be a crackpot, wingnut, or zealot. They could be mildly interested in the Muslim faith while living in America, or a hardcore Jihadist from Syria. The character could even be a Knight Templar heavily involved in the Second Crusade, or merely a snake handler from an offbeat sect of the Baptist church.

Hanging out at the opera is one thing, while staying home to watch porn with your classmates is another thing. Going to a Rave is one thing, while going to a Rock Concert is another. To even differentiate even more, a person might not like the crowd of a concert, but enjoy the same loud music at a bar.

See how the social aspects of your character help define your character’s being through the way they live? It’s pretty straightforward that characters can become as complicated as you wish.

The Emotional

What mindset you give your character further reflects your creation’s place in life. Is the character mentally ill? Divorced and depressed? Are their children drug addicts and they blame themselves for their burdens? Does John Doe see the glass half empty, or half full?

The way you emotionally setup your character will dictate how they will respond to crisis, joy, and other events in life. Take, for example, a man who is emotionally unstable when under pressure… He may crack when things go wrong. Whereas the smooth and silky type might overcome when presented with a major problem.

Just remember that you are setting up reader expectations with your character’s mindset… Your character’s actions in any given situation should reflect what you have set them up to be emotionally. It would cause confusion to have a meek, mild-mannered Clark Kent suddenly become the hero instead of the bulletproof, bold, and fearless Superman alter ego.


Through the following two examples, you will see a juxtaposition of writing style where the first exposition pukes facts out, albeit in an orderly fashion. When you read the second exposition, you will see a difference that should be evident. It should leave more behind detail, even if it took two extra paragraphs of prose.

Example #1

George was an imposing man, standing six foot five, a towering menace above the wee people who were of average size. Dirty blonde hair, cropped short, revealed a feint scar near the crown of his head, nothing more than a cracked skull complete with missing bone fragment from a training accident back in his Airborne days. His shoulders were broad enough to carry his massive head and provided the swagger of his walk. His big mouth was only quiet when he ate, and that happened often enough to keep him out of trouble.

It revealed tons of tattoos upon his body when he took his shirt off, which might happen for a fellow in need, or to show off for a fair maiden worthy of the Red Dragon impressed upon his left chest and bicep. The Yin-Yang, evident upon the opposing breast, was somewhat of a contrast to the crucifix on his right shoulder, while the eagle on his back, represented his soaring spirit.

His spirit flew high and mighty due to the pride he suffered through his association with the local chapter of the King’s Horsemen, an outlaw motorcycle club. He ate of his efforts often as he collected drug debts and retained a share for his efforts. Of course, once in a while, he would go further and the debtor would disappear.

Example #2

George Barrington was a pleasant sort of person, always thinking of others and putting them first when warranted. He was the type of guy who would take the shirt off of his muscular back and give it to you in need. He wasn’t even afraid to reveal his tattoos, which comprised several square inches of his chest, arms, and torso. They included a Red Dragon that spanned from the left pectoral onto his left bicep where the dragon’s head was blowing a fireball. The fireball aimed up into the sky was evidently a sign of the dragon’s prosperity and willingness to mate as sufficient circumstances unfolded, revealing his maturity.

The ever present Yin-Yang symbol, Taijitu, impressed upon the right breast, symbolized the balance of life that George continually strived to maintain. Although dwarfed by the massive dragon, Taijitu was still huge upon the man’s well developed pectoral. The yin, represented by his soaring spirit, that flew the heavens above his corporal body like the eagle stretched across his back. The yang, his earthly body, a temple sculpted through continual strain, was as important to George as it had been to the Christ.

The simple crucifix upon his right deltoid proved his allegiance to the Saviour went beyond mere lip-service and entered the realm of the holy warrior he saw himself as. Ever since leaving military life behind, Canadian Airborne had disbanded, and he didn’t want reassignment, so he ventured into another world. One filled with secrets and denial of existence… The Underworld. He had become what most dreaded in life, a paid enforcer for a local bike club who thought shaking the money tree was as routine as eating daily bread.

Bread he had a lot of, but morals he was skeptical of now that he had ventured out on a limb and guaranteed his own hanging… If the truth were to become known under sworn oath of testimony. He was sure the probability was low in that aspect cause the only witness would not have to testify against himself soon. He wasn’t thinking of the victim‘s impact statement, that was for sure, as they had gone missing in action.

George liked to think they were the enemy when it came down to it, not to justify the murder, but to indicate that they were the enemy… The club’s enemies, who feared him. Not always rivals from another club, but the foes of humanity who had crossed some imaginary boundary… Transgressed too far. By the appointed hour they were time and time again warned to stop… Desist… Cease Fire. By then, the fire was where they deserved to be and all they would ever again know.

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