Every book needs to tell its readers a little about the character’s history. Even small details like what sort of school they went to, where they worked their first job, or which traits they dislike about themselves can give a huge amount of motivation and purpose to their actions. My teachers always told me “If you don’t know the name of your protagonist’s driving instructor, you don’t know enough”. But where do we draw the line? When does a compelling back-story become useless filler that your reader would much rather skim past. It’s a delicate balance.
Character and Plot
Any back-story you include should help to develop your characters or plot in a meaningful way. Ask yourself if that piece of information will be relevant later on, or if it helps to build the attributes which define your character. If it doesn’t, you may want to consider cutting it. For example, if you are creating a character who is arrogant, it could be worth mentioning that they were brought up by parents who spoiled them. Or if you know that later in the plot, your character is going to suffer a heart attack, it could be appropriate to explain that they eat greasy fast food every lunch time. It’s rare to find a piece of back-story that contributes nothing at all, but it’s up to you to thin it down to just the most relevant and potent points.
If you don’t take care in your choice of back-story, you risk weakening your prose in several ways. To begin with, if you are including a mixture of important and trivial facts, it will be difficult for your reader to decide which were the parts they need to pay attention to and remember. If you list the name of every class-mate your protagonist ever had between the ages of 10 and 15, the impact will be lost when one of them dramatically reappears in their life 20 years later; your audience may not even remember their name, let alone what was significant about them.
You also risk forcing your reader to skim through sections of back-story. If they lose trust in the relevance of the information you are giving them, they will just stop paying attention. That’s bad enough on it’s own – no one wants a reader to lose interest – but you will also find if harder to reel them back in later on if they missed an important plot-point during their skimming.
It can be tempting to pump in as much information as you can fit on a page, but it is often better to reinforce a few key points than to turn your novel into a biography.
Weaving into the Plot
The other day, someone said to me about my manuscript, “Why don’t you take all of the history and information about the character and put it in a separate chapter at the beginning. Then you wouldn’t have to talk about it during the story.” My head met the desk with a sound that could be heard from Belgium.
I’m not against giving some prologue-style back-story if you have a good reason for doing it, such as explaining an event that happens long before the main plot, but will be meaningful later on. But bundling all of your history together at once and then never revisiting it is a risky strategy. It would be like eating a pile of cake and the a pile of icing sugar instead of putting them together. Actually, that sounds delicious, but you know what i mean.
By using this method or even by just giving back-story in chunks which are too large, you are forcing your reader to absorb a lot of information at once. A better alternative is to inject little snippets of information where it is relevant to the plot. You can do this by connecting the back-story to the present environment or situation. Over the course of several chapters, your character will grow in a way that is manageable for the reader.
So the main take-aways here are that your back-story needs to be relevant, concise and distributed through the plot rather than lumped together. This will really help you in creating a well-rounded and believable character.