Don’t Forget the Backstory

Backstory is what happened to your main characters before your story even begins. Since backstory is rarely shown, it’s often ignored. Unfortunately if you ignore backstory, you also completely eliminate the richness and depth of your story, which turns it into a meaningless and pointless exercise of characters randomly behaving in inconsistent and emotionally unsatisfying ways. If your story feels weak, chances are good you don’t have a backstory.

You need a backstory for every major character. That’s because every major character needs to change and before they can change, they need to be hurting right from the start. That means your story can’t waste time showing how the main characters start hurting, but it has to jump right into the story with the main characters hurting already. Basically every main character needs to go through four phases to change:

  • Something happened in the past (backstory) to put the main character in a dead end life
  • Something happens in the story (that we see) where the main character gets a chance to fix the problems of the past
  • The main character changes
  • The main character ends up in a happier life

In “Legally Blonde,” the backstory is that the hero has been dating a guy for so long that when he wants to meet her for a special occasion, she thinks he’s going to propose. By devoting her whole life to being a wife, the hero is actually stuck in a dead end life.

When her boyfriend dumps her and gets a new fiancé, the hero suddenly realizes she can be an independent woman on her own. By changing and refusing to be dependent on a man, she faces a court case where she wins and realizes she’s not only a strong woman, but has attracted a far better boyfriend as well.

“Legally Blonde” also includes a hairdresser who helps the hero. Her backstory is that she’s also lonely but has eyes on an attractive UPS deliveryman. The hero teaches her a trick to get the UPS deliveryman’s attention and she uses it. While this trick fails, it still gets the attention of the UPS deliveryman. Now the hairdresser has changed her life for the better (with the hero’s help) and she’s much happier as she starts dating this UPS deliveryman.

The simplest way to structure a story is to start with the hero. Ask yourself what’s the problem and the backstory is what defines that problem. Then ask yourself how the story ends and it should end by the hero resolving the problem the backstory created.

In “Casablanca,” the hero is cynical and selfish because he was once in love with a woman who left him. He gets a chance to change the pain from his past when he meets that woman once more. When the hero realizes why the woman left him, he changes and decides to help her and her husband while becoming optimistic and proactive once more.

In “The Children of Men,” the hero has a problem in that he mourns the loss of his son who died in a flu epidemic. By the end of the story, he helps save a woman he promises to name her child after the hero’s son, giving him peace at last.

Backstory is critical for any story. In “Star Wars,” Obi-wan has a huge backstory involving Darth Vader. In “Die Hard,” the hero’s backstory is that he couldn’t handle his wife’s move to Los Angeles and her corporate status, but he still loves her although he’s too stubborn to accept her new life. In every good movie, the backstory is what haunts the story in the beginning although we don’t know it. By dribbling out information about the backstory, we get intrigued and the story and characters become richer and more interesting. Then when we understand the backstory completely, we get to see the character change and achieve a better life.

This is the pattern for using backstory with all your main characters:

  • The character is stuck in a dead end life although we don’t know how they got there
  • The character gets a chance to change
  • The character starts to change and we understand how the backstory defined them
  • The character changes and achieves a happier life

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