Every interesting story has a backstory, which is what happened to the characters before the story gets started. To make your story richer and deeper, make sure you create a backstory that supports your hero’s goals.
Watch two strangers meet each other in a room and it’s polite, trivial, and ultimately boring. That’s the way stories are when you introduce characters without a backstory.
Now consider a couple going through a bitter divorce. When those two people meet in a room, there’s already tension between the two, each person already has their goals and point of view firmly implanted in their minds, and they’re ready to fight for what they want.
That’s what a backstory can do to energize any story.
The backstory not only defines who your characters are and their relationship with each other (such as age, favorite color, etc.) but it also gets the story started before we actually see the story getting started. For example, in “Avatar,” the hero is already in a wheelchair and his twin brother has already been murdered. We see that briefly at the beginning of the movie, but the backstory is that our hero already is stuck in a wheelchair and has long been wanting to get the expensive operation needed to get his legs back. This need is what drives the hero to accept the Avatar mission in the first place.
The backstory already defines the setting for the story, and we just happen to jump in the middle of it. In “WALL-E,” the backstory is that the Buy N Large corporation has already polluted the Earth and sent all the people away on spaceships. In this case, the backstory sets up the main story, but we gradually learn about this backstory as the main story moves forward.
Sometimes this backstory is minimal, such as “Up” where the hero is just a little boy fascinated with adventure. The story takes off as soon as the boy meets the whacky girl, who he will ultimately marry, but there’s still a backstory that propels the story forward.
In “Die Hard,” Bruce Willis’s backstory is that he’s separated from his wife and not happy about it. When he gets together with his wife, there’s already tension between them. Although we’re not initially aware of it, the opening scene of “Die Hard” has tension as Bruce Willis is getting off the plane and a flight attendant flirts with him. We don’t recognize this as tension until much later when we understand the backstory, but the backstory allows this scene to add to the story. Without a backstory, we would just see Bruce Willis getting off an airplane. With a backstory, we later understand why he’s there in the first place, and the flirting flight attendant just reinforces that tension in our subconscious.
Before you wrote or create your story, make sure you also create a backstory that provides your hero’s motivation. You don’t need to know trivial stuff about your hero like his favorite color or where he went to high school, but you do need to know what makes your hero behave.
The backstory is like a ghost that haunts the hero. Something happened in the past that has put your hero in his current dead end life. Now your hero needs to find a way to exorcise this ghost (backstory) and overcome his emotional need through pursuit of a physical need.
Your backstory is crucial to giving your story a rich texture. Omit a backstory and your story may feel flat and uninvolved. Add a compelling backstory that explains how your hero wound up in his current dead end life and you’ll create a more compelling story.