If you read most books on writing a novel, they suggest you create a backstory for your characters. The main point of any backstory isn’t to throw random information about your character like what school he or she went to or what type of pets they owned as a kid. Instead, the real purpose of a backstory is to understand what influences your character in the present.
What many writers do is create a backstory and then try to make it fit into the story they want to tell. This often creates lots of meaningless and irrelevant information. For example, if you create a backstory that your hero is afraid of snakes, then make sure that backstory is useful in your story like when Indiana Jones is trapped in a tomb filled with poisonous snakes in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” If you make a backstory that your hero is afraid of the dark and you never use that information in your story, then the backstory is fairly useless.
Instead of creating random backstory information about your characters, start the other way. Ask yourself what type of characters do you need and then determine what type of backstory would support them. For example, in “Die Hard,” the hero needs to be a street smart man capable of hitting and shooting terrorists. Knowing this, it’s easy to see that your hero’s backstory needs to be someone who has learned these skills in the past such as a soldier or a policeman. Once you know the relevant backstory your hero needs, you can go into more details such as the fact that he’s a New York cop so he’s probably more hardened and cynical than a cop who patrols Beverly Hills and only deals with rich people every day.
So the lesson isn’t to start with backstory and then try to figure out how this random information affects your characters in your story. First figure out what type of characters you need and then figure out the backstory. This will keep you from creating a backstory that’s completely different from the story that you want to write.
Backstory is critical because every story is about a character confronting and overcoming a problem with the past. In “The Karate Kid,” the karate teacher needs to overcome his past that he’s ashamed of, which is keeping him working as nothing more than maintenance man. In “Avatar,” the aliens have a backstory of trying to learn from the humans while also fighting the humans trying to mine their natural resources. In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the backstory is that the whole family has problems and learns to solve them over the course of the story.
Backstory isn’t just to help you see your characters as real people but to help you create a more powerful story. If you don’t know your backstory, you don’t know your main story either since every main story is about overcoming a problem from the past. In “Legally Blonde,” the hero’s problem from the past is that she doesn’t trust herself and thinks she’s nothing more than a dumb blonde who needs a man. Only through the course of her story does she realize she’s smart enough to stand on her own while still finding the love that she craves. Strip away her backstory of not trusting herself and you don’t really have a story at all.
Every story is about overcoming the problems of the backstory. That’s why you need to create your story first to outline the major problems, and then figure out the backstory that created those problems. Trying to create your backstory first is putting the cart before the horse. Start crating histories of your characters and you risk going in all directions to create characters for entirely different types of stories. If you define what type of characters you need first, then you can create the imaginative backstory that fully fleshes out those characters to make them unique.
Don’t write your backstory first and then your story because then you’ll wind up with lots of irrelevant information. Try plotting your story first and then creating a backstory that supports your story. You’ll spend less time creating the backstory and come up with far more relevant information to support your story when you do the steps in that order instead.