How to create a compelling character backstory

Every great character in literature has a story—how they grew up, how they came to be who they are, how they cope with the daily challenges of life. While it’s easy to write stories about characters experiencing big events, capturing how these experiences changed them over time is harder. If you’re still struggling to understand how character backstories work, keep reading. We’ll show you how to write a compelling character backstory as well as how to use yours as a writing tool.

What is a Character Backstory?

A talented actor perdoming character in backstory.

A backstory is a powerful tool for fleshing out the character.

A backstory is a comprehensive overview of how a character came to be who they are in the present day. It’s how they grew up, how they coped with what life threw their way, and how all of those experiences have made them the person they are today. The goal of a backstory is not to merely provide information but to also reveal how that information shapes the character’s motivations and actions in the present.

Backstories vs. Plot: What’s the Difference?

Difference between backstories and plot

Backstories and plots are two different things, and it’s important to understand the difference when writing your story. The plot is what happens in the story, while the backstory is what happened before the story began. The backstory is not necessary for every story, but it can be a powerful tool for fleshing out your characters and providing context for their motivations.

How to Write Compelling Back-stories for Your Characters?

A character backstory is a brief history of how your character came to be at the moment we meet them at the outset of the story. It can include how they were raised, what shaped their beliefs and values, the experiences that have defined them, how they got to where they are now.

There are many ways for you to go about writing a compelling character backstory. You could start from the beginning and work your way up. You might choose just one event or time in your characters’ life as a focal point for their story. Or you may decide to show how he or she changes over time by picking pivotal moments throughout their life and showing how those events have influenced who they became at each stage of development.

No matter which approach you take, make sure that the events in your character’s life are what shaped how they think and feel about themselves, how they act in the world, how they interact with others.

For example, if your protagonist grew up in a poor household, they may have developed an awareness of how social status is linked to privilege. Also, keep in mind how the events you choose are significant to who they are now. Focus on how those events have impacted how your protagonist interacts with others, how they think about themselves, how their values are defined.

4 steps - How to write a compelling character backstory.

Step 1: The Foundation

  1. Who is your character? What is his/her name, age, gender, profession?
  2. What does your character want or need?
  3. What is your character’s greatest fear?
  4. What has been the most traumatic experience in your character’s life? How did that experience change them?
  5. In what ways does your character differentiate from others in their beliefs and values?

 

Step 2: Dig Deeper

  1. Who is your character? Dig deeper into who your character is by answering these questions. What is their full name, exact age, gender, profession, and dream?
  2. What do they want? Why do they want it and how far will they go for it? Try not to just answer the how but also the how much and how often.
  3. What does your protagonist fear most? They may be petrified of spiders and staircases or they may fear losing control and becoming nothing more than an ordinary person.

 

Step 3: The Events

  1. How have the events in the story impacted your protagonist’s life and how does your character interact with others today? The events that shaped how they think and feel about themselves, how they act in the world, how they interact with others, how their past has shaped what they believe, how those events have impacted how your protagonist interacts with others.
  2. How you can use this information about their past to build a compelling storyline for them as an individual and as part of the story as a whole? There are many different storylines that you could have your character go through in order to show how past events shape how they interact with others today. For example, how it might change how they react to a traumatic event or how they feel about death, or how they approach relationships. You can also use this information to build a more complex background for the protagonist’s character arc.
A compelling character backstory can help you create three-dimensional characters that read as authentic and nuanced.

A compelling character backstory can help you create three-dimensional characters that read as authentic and nuanced.

3. How to keep the character realistic and how to stay consistent with how they have been portrayed so far as well as how to show how they have changed? You can make your character seem like a more three-dimensional and realistic person by including how their thoughts and feelings change over time. The changes in how they think and feel about themselves, how they interact with others, and how they handle events that take place in their life can be very telling of how the history of events that take place in their past has shaped who they are today.

4. How can this information help you figure out what motivates your protagonist and how their backstory may be represented through dialogue or action in the story? You must use how your protagonist reacts to events in the story how he or she has interacted with others up until this point how they have handled certain difficult situations how they have thought about themselves how they have come to terms with what has happened how their reactions are shaped by their history–to reflect how their history has shaped how they view the world.

Step 4: Show, Don’t Tell

Now that you know how your protagonist came to be how they view the world how they act in order to get what they want how their thoughts and feelings have changed over time how these changes are revealed through the story, dialogue, and action it’s time to show all of this through how you write. This means that it’s time to show how your protagonist’s backstory has impacted how they interact with others how they handle certain situations how their history is revealed through how they think, feel, and act.

 

Destiny Calling

You could have a flashback scene that occurs within the story to reveal how a specific event in your protagonist’s past shaped how they think, how they feel about themselves how they act and how that has changed how they interact with others and how they handle certain situations. For example: ‘I remember when my grandmother died,’ I replied as we walked through the forest. ‘It was several years ago, but the pain is still fresh.’

Or how about this: I walked into the office, flashed my badge to the secretary, and made my way to my boss’s office. As I entered, I could see the anger in his eyes.

Both of these examples use action and dialogue to convey how a character thinks, feels, and acts. You can use action and dialogue to show how a character’s backstory has shaped how they think, how they feel, how they act, and how that is revealed through the story, dialogue, and action.

Emily Brown

By following these four simple steps, you can create a compelling character backstory that will help you write richer and more realistic characters. Not only that, but you will also have a better understanding of how their backstory has shaped how they interact with others how they think how they feel how it impacts how they act–which is key to writing good character development!

A compelling character backstory can help you create three-dimensional characters that read as authentic and nuanced. Remember to show, not tell, allow the past events to affect how your character thinks, feels, acts, and reacts to events that take place throughout the storyline–to show just how far-reaching those effects have been on his or her life as well as who he or she is now.

Want to Learn More About Writing Your Backstory?

Learn More About Writing Your Backstory

Learn how to write a masterful backstory with a master of Characters and Backstory with Mel Shapiro.

Summary

In order to write a compelling character backstory, you must understand how history has shaped how the character and how they interact with others, and how their background affects how they go through life, in the story, answering the following.

  • Step 1: The Foundation
  • Step 2: Dig Deeper
  • Step 3: The Events
  • Step 4: Show, Don’t Tell

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About Author

emergeblog
Jeremiah O`Brian
Master Teacher  | USC School of Dramatic Arts

Jeremiah O’Brian is a faculty member at the USC School of Dramatic Arts. His exceptionally diverse background – from gritty nuts-and-bolts firefighting to film and theatre credits and accolades – is bolstered by his several graduate degrees.

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