A Protagonist’s Anatomy #2: Backstory

Real people don’t just pop out of thin air fully formed. Everything about them, from the way they speak to the things they believe, to the way they dress and to the decisions they make, is the culmination of what has gone before. This is is why if you want to write a protagonist of any real substance (and you do, dear reader) a strong backstory will be a vital part of his or her anatomy.

So what is a backstory? I hear you cry.

Put simply, a backstory is everything that happened to your protagonist before the events of your actual novel. More precisely, however, a backstory is whatever has happened in your protagonist’s past to make them who they are today. You may recall that last week we discussed character motive; but what is it that happened in this character’s past to endow them with this particular motive? That’s your backstory.

At this point, I would like to sound a note of caution. It can be tempting to write a detailed backstory which documents every single event in a protagonist’s life but this really isn’t necessary. It may or may not be the case that every single day is formative in the development of real life people, but we’re not writing real life. We’re writing fiction and fiction is reality refined to take away all the rough edges. Therefore, focus on what matters.

I find that the simplest approach is think of your character’s backstory like a photograph of the protagonist’s life. If you look at any good photograph (and I realise I’m stepping outwith my area of expertise here), you’ll see two things: the main subject of the photograph which sits in the foreground and the background which surrounds it.

Children holding hands in the foreground; a cobbled road and sunset in the background.

Your ‘background’ is all the basic stuff that goes into a character’s history: where they come from, who they grew up with, education, work, all that sort of thing. This doesn’t need to be too detailed. I find a simple list of basic facts will do for this point. E.g.:

Hometown: Somewhereland
Parents: Betty (deceased) and Bob
Siblings: Tom, Dick and Harriet.
… and so on and so forth.

Our ‘foreground’ backstory, however, ought to be a good deal more detailed. These are key events that have had a significant impact on your protagonist and were instrumental in making him the person he is today. Take Batman for instance. Why does this millionaire playboy feel the need to dress up in a frightening black costume and throw himself night after night into the criminal underbelly of one of the most lawless fictional cities in America?

Because when he was a little boy, he witnessed his parents being murdered. Every single version of Batman I’ve ever come across includes that key moment because that one event, more than anything else, makes Batman who he is. It’s what endowed him with that righteous fury which now serves as the key motivation behind everything he does. Without that righteous fury, he isn’t Batman; and without that painful single moment in his childhood, he has no real reason to be so motivated. It’s worth your while, therefore, writing out events like this in detail, perhaps even in the form of a little stand-alone short story. You don’t need to include this in your published book (in fact you probably shouldn’t), but it would probably be helpful for you as the author to have a detailed record of exactly what your protagonist experienced.

One more thing to remember: your character’s backstory is not the actual plot of your novel. It’s just the history of your character that makes them who they are today. Most of the background stuff will never need to be explicitly stated in the final published version of your story and even the foreground need not be laboured (though it should be gently inserted somewhere non-obstructive). What matters is that your protagonist has a clear origin so their motives don’t appear superficial to your reader, but your readers do not want to read lengthy portions of backstory which interrupt the flow of the actual plot. Click here to read a bit more about presenting a character’s backstory.

Thanks for reading. Be sure to come back next week for part 3, where we’ll be looking at character traits.

Missed part 1? Click here to go back!


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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

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Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

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