Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A to Z Challenge: B is for Back story

Back story is a tricky topic. You can't live with it and your MC can't live without it! The term "Back story" encompasses all those things that may have happened to your main character (or to the townspeople he's trying to help) before we meet him in the first pages of your book.

Take the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone**. J.K. Rowling sets the stage and the characters for her epic YA series in the first chapter and reveals a surprising amount of back story to her readers succinctly and with masterful characterization and style. By the end of chapter one we know all we need to know about the Dursley family and have tantalizing bits about Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Hagrid to carry us further into the story... as well as some crucial details about Harry Potter himself. Chapter two begins ten years later! We don't get any detail about what those ten years entailed, and we don't really need them because the characterization of Harry and the Dursleys in the subsequent scenes tells us everything, and I mean everything, we need to know just what happened during those ten years. But you can bet that J.K. Rowling knows what every minute of every day of Harry's childhood was like.

Each piece of back story that you know for your character can help create a more richly rounded picture of him (i.e., how and why he reacts to given situations, why he knows or thinks what he does about certain topics). You may think that it's just as important for your reader to know all this back story as it is for you. Honestly, though, it's not important... at least not yet.

SOME of this back story information is pertinent to the novel. MOST of it is not. Certain bits of back story, when they are revealed, dramatically enhance the action and push forward your plot. Knowing which bits are which can be difficult. Having someone read your manuscript with a critical eye and point out bits that don't pertain directly to the plot can help a lot!

Don't throw out or summarily delete all those delectable details, though! Someday you will have fans who will devour those bits. Save them for the special edition you release to your adoring fans after you've hit the bestseller list! Which bestseller list am I talking about? That is up to you.

**Editorial confession... I love Harry Potter deeply and dearly. I will likely use examples from that series a considerable amount during this series. If you love Harry Potter, too, I think we're meant to be BFFs for life. If you DON'T like Harry Potter... I'm sorry but it's just not going to work out between us...


  1. There are people who don't like Harry potter? Do they also hate sunshine and smiles? Silly people. Anyway, back story is easy to overdo, but fun to make up :)

  2. Hello, Elisabeth! I love Harry Potter, too!! Who doesn't?? I guess those people are out there...but then they must lead empty lives, LoL. ;) Great post on backstory and terrific example. J.K. Rowling really is a masterful writer!

    Happy A to Z-ing! from Laura Marcella @ Wavy Lines

  3. Great ideas! I'm not a writer and I've never given much thought to how much the author has to reveal about a character's back story, but you're right - we don't want too much because it would soon become boring, but we need enough to keep us hooked.

    Best of luck with the rest of the challenge.

    (Grover at Inane Ramblings)

  4. I have never successfully done fiction and this is exactly why. I can tell a reasonable story, but have trouble with what happened before the story.

    Dropping in from A to Z. This is my first year.

    Brett Minor
    Transformed Nonconformist

  5. Harry Potter is the perfect example of how to do back story properly. I'm always afraid I'm throwing in too much at one time and making the story boring.

    Allison (Geek Banter)

  6. Great mini lesson about backstory. There are a lot of TV shows recently that reveal backstory with flashbacks like my favorite, Person of Interest.

  7. Thanks for the helpful tips on backstory. I'm not a huge Harry Potter fan, but I did go see the exhibit when it was at the Boston Science Museum. Does that count for something? :)

    1. Thanks for being brave enough to admit that, Cindy! You're still welcome here. :)

  8. Great reference with Harry Potter. Uhm, yes - I love HP. How can you not? ;)

  9. Harry Potter is a perfect example of this - and I'd never noticed it before. Silly me!

  10. This household are Harry Potter fans , so I loved this post!

  11. I do believe in back stories. For each of my characters I have pages of them, which are all filed away in box files and on the computer as I touch on their particular stories. great post.


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