Back story – the bane of many beginning writers! How do I get all of the essential background about my character into the story as quickly as possible, they ask. And so they do what is a called a “back story dump,” filling you in on all the minute details of the character’s life before you care about the person. They are like the crazy bag lead on the bus or subway who starts to tell you things you never wanted to know. TMI! Your instincts tell you to back away from this person.
We wouldn’t share the intimate details of our life with someone we just met, so why do we share intimate details of our character’s life with someone who just opened our book. Give them some time to get to know your character and care about them before letting on how they had been abused as a child or had multiple affairs.
I pulled the numbers, 1000 words = 2 lines, out of my head. I don’t have any scientific research to back me on this, but it seems right to me. Back story is for us, not our readers. We need to know the intimate details and history of our characters because it informs who they are and how they act. But our readers don’t. What might amount to thousands of words in your character sketch can often be shrunk into one paragraph or even one line in your actual book. Back story is best show in mannerisms and actions.
In the TV show, Everybody Loves Raymond, Ray Barone’s brother Robbie has a quirk. He touches food to his chin before eating it. This goes on for episode after episode, season after season. It is only in season eight that we finally find out why he does that. We find out with very few words, just action on the part of his mother. We don’t need a long discourse on how Robbie felt his mother favored Raymond and all the psychological damage caused by this. We see it in different ways in episode after episode through the actions of the main characters.
Keeping us in the dark, keeps us interested. Keeping your readers in the dark will keep them wondering and make them continue reading to find out.
So, if you need to write pages of back story in order to understand your character, do so. But only share this with us in small bits when appropriate.
How do you handle back story?