This month we’re unveiling the topic of Character Backstories, why they’re important, and how we manage to get the information onto the page without a snooze-worthy info-dump. Because nobody likes an info-dump. Even if it’s told in a snarky voice in the narrative, readers recognize an info-dump when they see one.
So… how do I convey important information on the page?
First, let me express that not everything in a character’s backstory is necessary for the narrative to move forward. So the very, very first thing I have to ask is if this information is relevant. If it isn’t, it’s tossed. Maybe one day it’ll come out in an anthology somewhere, but if it has no bearing on the current storyline it can be set aside.
Yes, even if it explains why Character A is so emotionally closed off.
The truth is, sometimes a little mystery is good. Readers are smart, and creative, and allowing them to wonder is a good thing.
The character of Johanna Rorry – also known as Jorry – stars in my Tapped series and she is complicated: she’s commanding, overbearing, and too sharp for gentler company. Granted, she’s in charge of a starship and everything in outer space is designed to kill humans. She is also a veteran who has been through a galactic war. Just knowing those two pieces is enough to explain some of that overbearing behavior away, without diving into a major info dump.
You know there’s trauma hiding behind her, even if it isn’t expressly explained.
What I do give are small snippets of memory.
People are the sum total of their experiences. Memories crop up in the natural course of the day. It’s no difficult thing to imagine such happening for our characters on the page. So if the information is relevant, if it hints toward something I’m going to unveil later on, I go ahead and put something in the way of my character that brings out a memory.
For instance, in my upcoming novel Nora and the Werewolf Wedding we see an empathic wizard coming to terms with how different the cultures are between living in Boston and living in Fairy. There is some trauma in her past, which I reveal through tiny snippets of memory, the first of which can be seen below.
–SNIPPET — Nora and the Werewolf Wedding —
Except for the occasional hairdresser, no one had brushed my hair since I was a child and for a heartbeat I was distracted by the gentle scrape of bristles across my scalp. Memories uprooted, unbidden but clear, and I could almost hear the melodic hum of my mother’s voice as she helped prepare me for bed. I could not have been more than seven, hugging a doll whose name was something like Regina, and basking in the attention. She was all warmth and light and gentle teasing, with a soft chuckle that seemed to echo into the quiet room.
But on the tail of that memory a dark staircase leading down, my own voice sounding small as I called for mother. I could feel the chill of the basement reaching for me, long shadows pooling at the bottom of the stair, and dread crept up my spine.
Grief pricked fresh and I blinked back the burn of tears, shoving hard at the memories. Meredith was not my mother, she was performing a service, not providing comfort, and I needed my wits to survive whatever dinner was waiting downstairs.
Readers can glean that Nora remembers her mother a little, but thoughts of her mother turn to a shadowy staircase and a strong sense of fear. We know something important happened in the basement, and there’s the promise that eventually this part of her backstory will come to light, but we keep a little mystery in the mix because there are things happening and Nora needs to concentrate.
Memories like these are an organic means of adding backstory into a narrative without clogging the page with an info-dump. The majority of my books use them and until I learn how to be better at it, I’ll probably keep adding them.
Check out how my fellow authors manage Character Backstory!
Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/
A.J. Maguire https://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/ ((YOU ARE HERE))
Helena Fairfax http://www.helenafairfax.com/blog
Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-2Sr
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
4 thoughts on “Character Backstories – March Round Robin 2023”
That’s an excellent example. Very powerful to hint not state. 🙂
Love the morphing memory and the idea of creating mystery to keep the reader engaged. As we all seem to agree, less is better but some things are important for the reader to know.
I like your example. It gives enough back-story, without seeming to stop the action moving forward.
I like your example. Good idea to use a memory, which hints at more, but provides only enough as is needed to keep the story going–and the reader intrigued.