I was recently sitting at home with my wife when it occurred to me that if one of my schoolmates (whom I haven’t seen in years) hadn’t gone on holiday to Spain in 2002, I would never have got married more than a decade later. You see, he went on holiday with his family in 2002 and befriended a girl there (not my wife) and some time after this, he introduced me to her. A few years later, I got a job in town and started going out with the girl my friend met on holiday. I would often go to see her straight from work, using a shortcut which took me past a particular college (I didn’t know this college existed before then). I eventually split up with the girl my friend met on holiday so many years before, but a while after this I decided to study at the aforementioned college that I had discovered while taking the shortcut to see my now ex-girlfriend. At that college, I met another girl who was working in the canteen: she who is now my wife.
A leads to B which leads to C, all the way up to Z and beyond. This is what happens in real life. In fiction, this needs to be compressed into a backstory. Where did your character come from? Who influenced them as he was growing up and throughout his life up until this point? And most importantly of all: what is that defining moment in their past that made them who they are today?
For example, like most superheroes, Spider-Man’s goal is to stop the bad guy(s), protect the innocent and generally save the day. He is motivated to do this by the belief that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. However, this belief didn’t just pop into his head. He learnt this lesson in his very first comic book appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15 (and subsequent re-imaginings of the same story), when he refused to use his powers to stop a criminal — only for that same criminal to murder his uncle. This single event lies behind everything Spider-Man does from that moment on, even if it is not explicitly mentioned. It is a defining moment in Spider-Man’s life that changed him from a selfish lad who was only interested in using his powers to make money into the crime-fighting hero he became.
The same goes for bad guys. Something made them who they are today. Darth Vader, for instance, wasn’t always a heavy-breathing, Force-choking Sith. Even before the prequel trilogy came out, it is stated that at one point he was a Jedi who was ‘seduced by the Dark Side’ (Return of the Jedi). The prequel trilogy shows us several events in his life which arguably contributed to his conversion into the Sith Lord we know and love from the original trilogy, but the key moment comes in Revenge of the Sith, when he has a vision of his wife dying in childbirth and is convinced by Darth Sidious that he can ‘cheat death’ by joining the Dark Side. However, even if the prequel trilogy had never happened (I’m sure there are many who wish that it were so), there would still remain this implied critical moment in Darth Vader’s life when he became the man in the shiny black helmet (in fact, the very fact that he has to wear all that cybernetic equipment just to keep him alive implies an exciting backstory by itself).
So, backstories clearly are vital parts of characterisation. But now that we (as authors) know them, how do we present them to the reader?
Give It To Us Straight
I think some authors get so excited about the character they’ve created that they just can’t bear to only show you a single portion of their life. Not when they’ve created such a great backstory! And so, instead of implying a backstory, they will give you the full biography of the character they’ve created from the day they were born. Everything is made explicit. Every. Tedious. Detail.
If you must do this, the best approach is probably to try to limit yourself to that key event (for instance, the death of Spider-Man’s uncle) and do not try to cram it all into the first page. Give it to us in dribs and drabs and only as much as is absolutely necessary. For instance, let’s pretend I was writing a Spider-Man story (I’m not, by the way!). My first couple of pages could be devoted to explaining in some detail how Peter Parker got bitten by a radioactive spider, gained super powers, used his powers selfishly at first, let a crook escape, lost his uncle as a result and decided to become a superhero as a result… but I wouldn’t hold my reader’s attention for long. It would suffice in the opening pages to hint at a tragedy and maybe a sense of guilt felt by the protagonist but nothing more until later.
If the backstory is very complicated and really needs a long-winded narrative, then I suppose you could always tell it in the form of flashbacks scattered throughout the narrative, but personally, I hate excessive flashbacking. If the backstory is that important and that complicated that you are considering flashbacks, you might want to consider…
Prequels are all the rage. Gotham, Hannibal Rising, Legends of Dune, The Magician’s Nephew, Endeavour, the aforementioned Star Wars prequel and the last few offerings from the Star Trek franchise all give us detailed backstories in the form of a completely separate book/film/show/etc.
The benefits to doing this are obvious: you can present your character’s backstory in all its glorious splendour with the full narrative form that it deserves.
The downside is that if you’re writing an entirely separate narrative, you’ll still need backstories for your backstory, since your prequel is a story in its own right. Darth Vader (or Anakin Skywalker, as he was then known) might have only been nine years old in The Phantom Menace, but even at that stage, he had a backstory; he and his mother were slaves of Watto and that he was believed to have been conceived by the Force. It is also worth remembering that just because you plan to tell the backstory in the form of a separate prequel, that backstory must still exist and be implied within the main story itself. Writing a prequel is no replacement for a detailed and well presented backstory in the main story.
Imply Your Backstory (The Best Way)
We return, then, to the age old adage of good writing: show; don’t tell. Don’t write anywhere in your Spider-Man novel (note: please do not write a Spider-Man novel) that he once let a criminal escape and that criminal shot his uncle. Instead, show me a tragic hero who is climbing walls and spinning webs to try and make up for a mistake he made years ago; a mistake that is gnawing away at his insides; a regret so profound that it would drive him insane if he didn’t wear a mask and risk his life every day to wage a one-man war on crime. Keep me turning pages in the hopes that I might glean the backstory based on what is still haunting his thoughts and influencing his actions today. The more you reveal without stating it explicitly, the better your writing will be.
If you ask me, this is nearly always the best way to present a backstory effectively. Giving explicit descriptions of what happened in a character’s past is not only cumbersome, it also answers most of the reader’s questions too quickly. Writing a prequel might be fun (some of them are even very good), but if you don’t know your protagonist’s backstory when you come to write your main story, you’ll still end up with a shallow and lifeless character, because real people don’t just pop out of the ground fully formed. The circumstances of their lives are defined by what has happened before. Therefore, you as the author must know – and show that you know – what has happened to bring your character to this point if you want to create a believable person.