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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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.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

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.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

I Love Scapple; You Should Too!

Sometimes when you’re in the planning stage of constructing your story, it can be difficult to keep track of all of your ideas – especially if you’re still undecided about what ideas you’re going to use and what ideas you’re going to discard. Figuring out timelines of individual characters, their relationships to one another or the history of your fictional world (particularly for us fantasy/sci-fi types) can be a complex process. I spoke before about how I like to brainstorm in a notebook, but notebooks have one major weakness when it comes to refining your story: they’re a bit on the small side. Even if they have a million pages, you still can’t spread out all your ideas in front of you at once; much less easily organise and rearrange them.

Corkboards or spreading out your notes on your kitchen table is one way around this, but they have limited room too (they can also get really untidy and that can leave you feeling more confused than ever). There is plenty of mind-mapping software out there, of course, but its usefulness can be limited if you’re experimenting with many different ideas at once, because they force you to make logical connections between each note. Thankfully, the good people who gave us Scrivener have done it for us again.

At first glance, Scapple by Literature and Latte might appear to be just another piece mind-mapping software claiming to possess the secret of eternal creativity but in actual fact, it is quite different in a few important ways; ways which make it the ideal tool for those of us who have a million different ideas they need to organise and have been unable to find a large enough whiteboard or a thick enough packet of post-its.

weescapple1‘Freedom’ is the word that comes to mind when I think about Scapple. Freedom to organise all your thoughts (however many, and however big or small) into whatever order you want, in whatever style you want and with remarkable ease. One of the main freedom-endowing features Scapple has is that it allows you to place notes anywhere on the board, which you may choose to connect or not connect to other notes as you see fit. If you want to link your notes together, you can do it using arrows, two-way arrows or dotted lines. You are also not bound to work from a single central note as you are in mind-maps (though you certainly could do this if you wanted to). Each and every note you add to your board will be a free and independent note, which you can connect to or disconnect from as many other notes as you wish – assuming you choose to join any of your notes together at all. You can also easily surround some or all of your notes with a ‘background shape’, which keeps them together. All of this makes it ideal for experimenting with many different ideas at once.

weescapple2If you’re like me, you probably find that colour-coding your notes is a big help when you’re coming up with new ideas. Fortunately, it’s easy to customise the style of your notes to make them look exactly how you like them. The bulk of the customisation Scapple offers is available through the non-intrusive ‘Inspector’, which includes two tabs: one for customising the note style of whatever note you have selected at the time, and another for customising the format of the overall board (background colour/image, default font, etc). By default, Scapple comes with a few pre-made note styles that you can easily select by simply right-clicking the note(s) you want but you will probably find yourself quickly wanting to create your own note styles that you can re-use. Fortunately, it’s easy to create re-usable note styles by simply creating one bubble in the style you want and then choosing ‘New Note Style from Selection’ in the Format->Note Style menu. Not only that, but you can also redefine pre-existing note styles and even import note styles from another Scapple board (saving you the hassle of re-creating your custom note styles every time you start a new board).weescaple4 You can also add images as notes simply by dragging the file from your File Explorer directly onto the board and of course, as this little gem was indeed conceived by the same minds which gave us Scrivener, you can easily import notes from Scapple into Scrivener simply by dragging them into Scrivener’s Binder.

For me, however, Scapple’s usefulness doesn’t end once I’ve refined my basic idea. Once I’ve decided what story I am going to write, Scapple can be of further use for creating useful diagrams such as timelines. For the novel I’m currently working on, I used Scapple to create a timeline which allowed me to mark off where individual story beats came in and how this related to the progress of the protagonist’s character arc. This allowed me to see the whole functioning skeleton of my story, with all its individual elements working together in a format which was very clear and easy to work with. Additionally, the freedom Scapple gives you to add notes anywhere on your board meant that I could still easily add notes-to-self on any points which I was concerned about (of which there were a few!).

I really would like to come up with a few negative points for the sake of giving a balanced review of this product, but its simplicity, ease of use and freedom to do what you want with it makes it a really great product with very few cons that I can think of (incidentally, I’ve also found a few other non-fiction related uses for it). It’s available for Mac and PC and is also available as a 30-day free trial (that’s 30 days of use, so you don’t need to feel under pressure to use it every day for a whole month) so why not give it a go? If it’s a way to organise and plan your novel that you’re looking for, I’m sure that Scapple won’t disappoint you.

Presenting Your Characters’ Backstories

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.