Backstory is a history or background created for fictional characters in a film, television program, or a novel.
Backstory for characters is therefore an essential part of any novel. Even those written with a minimalist style–like it is the case for Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates.
Instead, in short stories the approach to backstory can vary notably—mostly depending on the length of the short story itself.
In some cases we have almost no backstory–for example because, like in Sentry by Fredric Brown, it helps create the final twist. In other cases instead backstory is used unabashedly because it is necessary to the story–Cathedral by James Carver comes to mind.
From definitions to literary quotes
When creating some backstory for your characters, I believe that you should always keep in mind these two quotes.
The first comes from On Writing by Stephen King: “The most important things to remember about backstory are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting. Stick to the parts that are, and don’t get carried away with the rest. Life stories are best received in bars, and only then an hour or so before closing time, and if you are buying.”
The second comes instead from Sandy Vaile: “Backstory is like a flavour you can’t quite pick, lurking in the layers of a curry. You know it’s there and it enhances the flavour, but it’s intangible and fleeting. Use it sparingly!” Continue reading