Part 4: Characterization – How to Make Your Readers Love ‘em Instead of Leave ‘em


Today’s post is the 4th in a 7-part Series on “The Art and Craft of Characterization” 

Part 4: Crafting Backstory

Recently a football player at the University of Oregon made national news – and Youtube – by punching an opponent after a game.  It was an immediate hit – pun intended – on the Boise State stadium’s jumbotron screen, then ad neaseum on the news as it was dissected every which way by sportscasters, and then in the court of public opinion.  None of it pretty.

The verdict: the player was suspended for the season.  Massive approval ensued, except on the U of O campus, of course.  The school had saved its waning reputation.  The coach saved his job.  The critics saved face.

And the player lost his dream, and possibly a shot at an NFL career.  

The closer you look, the better it gets.

Great story, eh?  Know what makes it even better?  Something called the backstory.  The events and dynamics that preceded the event itself, exerting influence on the players in this little athletic soap opera.

Because there was a lot that went into the dynamics of that dark moment.  Just as there is a lot that goes into the dynamics of the key moments in your stories.

First of all, the player came from a culture of conflict — the meanstreets  of the inner city — with a childhood, scholastic and domstic backgrounds that positioned football as his ticket out.   His hope.  Prior to the incident he was a budding star, a tale of triumph over adversity (theme), the next day he was done.

Remember, nothing fuels a story quite like hope.

Then there was the hype leading up to the game itself, in which the player popped off right and left in the press about how Oregon would “whoop on” this opponent, all this trash talk leading toward what he hoped would be revenge against a loss to Boise State  the previous year. 

Then the coach wrote it all off as part of football being an aggressive game played by aggressive young men, all but sanctioning the trash talk and thus fueling the bad blood between the two teams and schools.

This is human psychology at work in this story.

Then there was the kid who got hit, a defensive tackle the size of a small bus, who after his team pummeled Oregon in strong fashion, confronted the guilty player with taunting words and an unfriendly tap on the shoulder pads.  One can almost write that dialogue from where you sit.  He reportedly had a history – a backstory – of mouthing off, and would be receiving a talking-to for his role.

All of this is backstory.  What went down before, and behind, the actual event.

Backstory as a Storytelling Tool

In the previous post we discussed how the actions of our characters need to have psychological validity and, at least, a visible connection to some behavioral explanation with roots in the past.  Backstory is where you make that happen.

Some writers actually write out a backstory for their major characters, often at great length.  The objective of this exercise is to create a linkage between their actions within the story and the psychological roots that fueled it.

So which comes first, the backstory or the actions within the story? 

Doesn’t matter, as long as the backstory is solid and valid before you stamp “final draft” on anything.  Because, even if it’s retro-fitted, major behavioral tendencies and specific actions need to be in context to psychological truth, and if it isn’t there your story will suffer for it.

Beware the Bite of the Backstory

As usual, though, there’s a risk.  By writing out and investing a lot of time and energy in a backstory, you’ll be tempted to use too much of it.  Not good. 

The trick here is to show enough backstory that the reader can intuit where the character is coming from, rather than spelling it out.  Flashback scenes solely for the purpose of explaining backstory are never a good idea, you need to be more artful and subtle in delivering backstory as part of the narrative flow.

The Iceberg Principle

Here’s the primary guideline, called the “iceberg principle” – show only ten percent of your character’s backstory.   Literally.  Show enough to allow the reader to glean and make assumptions about what remains unseen.

Backstory can be too much of a good thing.  Don’t go there.

As it is with many elements of storytelling, the best way to get a feel for execution is to look for and acknowledge it when you see it in other stories.  Pretty much every novel you read and movie you see will have a strategic backstory in play – your job as a writer-in-progress is to notice how it’s done and take what you’ve learned back to your own story.

Photo credit: Rghrous

Next post: The clash of the conflict demons.


Filed under Characterization Series

2 Responses to Part 4: Characterization – How to Make Your Readers Love ‘em Instead of Leave ‘em

  1. ‘Here’s the primary guideline, called the “iceberg principle” – show only ten percent of your character’s backstory. Literally. Show enough to allow the reader to glean and make assumptions about what remains unseen.’

    I remember a blogging expert’s advice:
    ‘Treat your readers like dogs and give only bits by bits.’
    This may sound harsh but really not unethical.

  2. Great stuff Larry. Thanks for this series. I can’t believe how much has broken loose for me in my writing since a friend pointed me to your site.

    I’ve been at a block with a manuscript I’m working on because the backstory is jamming me up. I can’t figure out how to get enough in there for things to come clear without an information dump. So this is of particular interest to me.

    Thanks again. I love your site and the information you’ve shared. I really appreciate it.