My Backhand to Backstories
Why You Can Add a Backstory to Your Characters but DON'T HAVE TO!
Do your characters need a backstory? The short answer is, no. But it seems that a lot of writers fundamentally disagree with this perspective because many see characters as nothing more than simulations of people. And since real people have backstories, it’s believed that characters should also have them.
Here’s the thing…If you only aim to simulate people when crafting characters, you’ll run the risk of messing them up because you didn’t focus on the parts that matter most. It’s these parts of a character that ultimately help you make informed decisions on how to simulate them as real people so that can they remain authentic and meaningful to the story.
Now, this isn’t to say that your characters shouldn’t have a backstory or feel like a person. Of course, writers and audiences should have an emotional connection to the point of feeling like they know them. And yeah, this means integrating a bunch of aspects, such as general mannerisms or things that make them angry, scared, and happy.
But when it comes to a backstory, that should be employed based on what you’re creating. This is because a backstory isn’t an essential component of a character. Rather, it’s a device or a tool used to both drive the story and help us understand the character better. And given that there are many other ways to accomplish these things, a backstory isn’t necessary for every single story. It’s like using a lens flair to transition every single shot in your movie. Doing it once when the moment is right works…But every time is just insanity! The same is true for a character’s backstory.
So backstories can be good or they can be a complete detriment. You just gotta know when to use them!
When to Use a Backstory
Many stories incorporate backstories for their characters. Of course, not all of them do. But when it’s done, it’s generally for three reasons.
Reason #1: The Past and Present Is The Story
A backstory can be necessary when the story takes place in both the present and the past. We see this in countless movies, such as Forrest Gump or the show, True Detective.
In these cases, what happens in the past and present is the story, itself. In other words, if we don’t see any backstory, the story is incomplete. That’s why in these movies you see this jumping back and forth between the past and present. The audience isn’t being shown a parable or some quick little moment. They’re being presented with a whole new plot that weaves into the other.
In Forrest Gump, we see the present moment throughout the whole story where the main character is sitting on a bench waiting for a bus to arrive so that he can reconnect with his one true love.
But the vast majority of the story takes place in the past, revealing all of the amazing things he had accomplished as a mentally challenged person and how he came together and fell apart with the woman he’s about to meet again.
Now, imagine if the story never jumped back to the past. Imagine the hour and some change movie only showed various shots of Forrest sitting on the bench talking about his wild adventures. If that choice was made, then the movie wouldn’t have been nearly as impactful as it turned out to be.
Sure, it would have been cheaper and easier to make, but most people would have probably stopped watching it after 10 minutes because he would have been talking about all of these wild things that made a huge difference in his life. Yet, we wouldn’t have seen or experienced any of them.
It’d be one thing if it was just a singular moment in his past that could quickly be divulged in a scene, but in this case, there were many, many moments in Forrest’s past. And because they were all very interesting, if not the central component to this story, the movie practically demanded that the writer incorporated a thorough backstory for the main character.
So if half of your story takes place in the past, incorporate a backstory…Obviously. You’d be crazy not to!
Reason #2: A Past Moment or Moments Shape The Character In The Present
The second reason why you’d consider adding in a back story is when there’s a moment or several moments in the past that fundamentally defines the character’s actions and beliefs in the present and can only be understood if we hear or see those moments. In the movie, Arlington Road, we see a flashback of this FBI raid that the main character’s wife was a part of. Unlike Forrest Gump, most of the movie takes place in the present. The one exception is this specific flashback that occurred a few years back.
This past event is peppered throughout the movie, and that’s because it defined the main character in the current moment where the movie takes place.
His wife was an FBI agent who died in this raid, not by criminals, but by an innocent conservative family who owned a bunch of legal firearms and thought the FBI were robbers. It was faulty intelligence that got his wife killed, and because of that, the main character is bitter towards the FBI.
Not only is this an important element for the story as he’s framed for being a right-wing terrorist later on, but it’s also a vital piece of information the audience needs to know in order to make sense of his jaded views about the government.
And how they set it up was great because they didn’t just vomit out the backstory at the beginning. They introduced us to the character’s jaded personality, first, which provoked us into questioning why he’s like that, which compelled us to want to learn the “why” behind his outlook.
It’s a fantastic movie that I highly recommend checking out, but the main takeaway is that if we need to know about something in the past in order to understand the main character within the present moment, then you may want to add a backstory, though, you certainly don’t have to. It just depends on how complicated the backstory and character’s outlook are within the present moment.
Reason #3: The Past Progresses The Plot
Now, the third and final reason why you’d consider adding in a backstory is when you need to show something that gives the audience context for understanding the plot. For instance, let’s say one of your characters is shot by another character, seemingly out of nowhere. You may want to either weave in a backstory that can unfold throughout the movie or just dump an entire backstory that can help us understand why this person murdered the other.
This is pretty much what the creators of the show, Bloodline did to hook the audience into wanting to watch the whole season. At the beginning of the show, we see the main character getting rid of a body, which sparks the question, “Who, really, is this guy and why is he dragging his brother’s body through the water? Did he do that?”
They could have run the entire first season in the present moment, and all of our burning questions would have been revealed through dialogue and action. But it wouldn’t have been the same. For us to truly appreciate this death and feel it, the creators had to immerse us in a deep backstory that could give us this powerful reason for the horrific event and thus, continue the rest of the plot in a much more visceral manner. The entire first season is that backstory to give us the deeper context of the plot.
Another great example is in the movie, SLC Punk. The main characters run into someone they knew who is now homeless. Again, like the dead body on the first episode of Bloodline, this is a shock because it wasn’t too long ago when we saw this guy living a normal life.
And as soon as we see how rock-bottom his life became, they cut to an entire backstory explaining how he got there, which was actually pretty wild. I recommend you check it out if you haven’t already. Anyway, the point is, they added the backstory not necessarily because they HAD to, but rather because finding out he’s homeless was such a jarring reveal, it felt appropriate to cut to a backstory that could explain it all.
So that’s pretty much when you would want to employ a backstory. You do it because it is the story, it helps us understand the characters better, it physically progresses the plot forward by giving us context, or because it’s a combination of all three. Now, when is it a bad idea to add a backstory?
When Not to Add a Backstory
If you’re creating a backstory for any other reason than what was mentioned above, then chances are you probably don’t need to incorporate that backstory. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, “Does the audience have to know about this past event and if so, do I need to show it?” For instance, in the movie 16 Blocks, we see a washed-out alcoholic cop played by Bruce Willis.
Do we need to know why he’s like this? Absolutely as it plays well into his character change when confronting the demons that led him to be like this. But do we need to know how he grew up, what his family relationship was like, how he became a cop and all the crazy stuff he experienced throughout his career? And for that matter, do we need to see any scenes depicting his past? Not at all. We just need to know one thing: Why is he a washed-out alcoholic? And this can be summed up in one sentence…He was a corrupt cop who feels guilty for doing what he did.
This is great for the story because it’s one giant cat-and-mouse chase where he’s trying to protect a witness who is about to testify against his corrupt colleagues that he used to roll with. That means if this witness testifies the main character is also going to get thrown under the bus. But what’s really great is the fact that this can all be expressed without having to show any backstory, which is exactly what the creators chose to do in this movie.
At no point did we see any kind of flashback because all of the information required to know him is revealed using dialogue.
And this is because what we need to know is short, simple, and easy to understand. There isn’t a specific event or series of events that are important to show in order to understand this. We don’t need to know how he became corrupt. We just need to know that he was and feels guilty about it. That’s it and nothing more.
Another great example of not using backstories to expand on characters and plot is from the movie, The Edge. This one has a lot of room for backstory, such as the fact that the main character is a brilliant billionaire with a trophy wife who models. And the main antagonist is a professional photographer accompanying the main character and his wife on this trip to Alaska for a photoshoot.
The writer could have employed a bunch of backstories to show us how and why the characters are the way that they are, and it probably would have worked. But they didn’t do any of that.
In fact, the writer didn’t even use dialogue to express any kind of backstories for these characters, as we saw in 16 Blocks. There wasn’t any information about how the billionaire gained so much wealth or how the photographer ended up falling in love with the rich man’s wife, let alone why he was even jealous of him, to begin with. Nothing about their pasts was revealed to us, both in backstory and dialogue, yet it worked because you still obtain everything you need to know in order to understand the motives behind the characters, which leaves you satisfied.
The billionaire is a wise and modest stoic with a wife that he cherishes. The photographer is a quick-witted sassy clown who lusts after the billionaire’s wife. They could have added backstories, but they didn’t have to because we can understand this basic conflict that unfolds between the two when they’re thrust into a survival situation after their plane crashes.
The writer chose to use the character's moral choices to explain who they were deep down inside. And when you combine that with an easy-to-understand conflict, in this case, jealousy, you end up with an opportunity to write a story that doesn’t need any flashbacks or backstory explanations in the dialogue.
So remember. Always ask yourself if the audience needs to know about x,y, and z’s past events and if they do, does it need to be shown? 16 Blocks needed a backstory, but it didn’t need to show us anything because it was super simple. And The Edge didn’t even need a backstory because all of the characters could be understood by their moral choices.
So that, my friends, is backstories for characters. They can be used, but they’re not imperative because, at the end of the day, it’s just a narrative device like any other. Use it to tell the story not because you think it has to be incorporated. And always ask, “What information am I conveying, and can I convey this without a backstory?” More often than not, you probably can. And honestly, if you can avoid backstories, it’s likely better since it’ll help you avoid those stupid flashback tropes while making your movies cheaper to film! But whatever you choose, just make sure it serves the story and not what you think belongs in a story.
Hope this post was helpful. As always, best of luck in your creative endeavors!