Building Better Backstories - Tips & Ideas
Table of Contents
- Constructing and building the backstory - what for and how.
- Don’t forget to make reality checks!
- Don't be a copycat.
- Shortcuts and conveniences: be sparse and stingy about them.
Constructing and building the backstory - what for and how.
The primary purpose of a backstory is to set up and explain who your character is now and why your character is that way. Why is your character afraid or uncomfortable around this? What drives and motivates your character to do that?
If your character’s backstory is presented in such a way that it seems like you’re deliberately trying to set your character up as an object of admiration or respect and/or as an object of pity, people may be turned off. While a good and engaging backstory can and should evoke emotional responses, you should try not to impose opinions of your characters on other people - simply write what happened, and let the audience decide for themselves what to think about your character.
If you have a build or persona in mind for your character, you can potentially infer a lot of background from that. For example, if your character is a scientist who works for a respected company, you can infer that your character attended college and earned the necessary degrees. This leads to the question of how your character paid for college - did xe have the means to pay for it xirself? Did xe earn scholarships? Did xe take out a student loan? If your character is a great martial artist, it can be inferred that xe put a lot of time and effort into practicing, and quite possibly had a good teacher. If your character is a Formula 1 racecar driver, it can be inferred that xe’s spent a lot of time on the track honing xir skills. (And I do emphasize a lot, because it’s a lifestyle, not a weekend hobby.)
You can also infer background from your character’s views and beliefs - nobody’s views and beliefs arise in a vacuum, after all. People typically share a large part of their views and beliefs with those who raised them. If your character’s views do differ drastically, it shouldn’t be for no reason. Perhaps xe met someone who offered them a new perspective xe they found compelling enough to change their minds. Perhaps xe's inclined to critically examine things or look for loopholes or exceptions and found that what they’d been taught didn’t really hold up. Perhaps later beliefs they were taught conflicted with older ones and xe realized this - eg, perhaps early on they were taught to “love everyone” at first and were only later exposed to the xenophobic views of xir culture, and realized that the latter was incompatible with the former. (And if your character believed and saw things differently than everyone else, this may have lead to strain and tensions between xir and others and/or may have lead to your character learning to keep xir mouth shut to avoid negative consequences.)
Remember, it isn’t necessary for your character’s initial backstory to have each and every part of your character’s past laid out in detail. As you progress through writing or playing your character, you can come up with further details as they become relevant. However, you’ll have to be careful not to contradict your character’s previously-revealed history or characterization. For example, if Peter is unable to free himself after getting tied up in one episode but a few episodes later we find out that he’s an escape master because he used to be a spy, then that’s potentially a pretty big inconsistency. If we find out that he was keeping it a secret for security reasons all along that could potentially work - but if he had little to lose and everything to gain by escaping in the earlier episode (eg, there was nobody around whom it would matter if they saw him escape, and his life was in danger), then him simply trying to keep it a secret doesn't really solve anything and ends up creating another problem instead.
Don’t forget to make reality checks!
One thing you’ll want to do is consider the tone of the universe you’re creating your character for and ask yourself how things generally work in that universe. How are things set up, or how are they likely to be set up? How do people react, or how would they be likely to react to certain scenarios in this universe? Also, are the characters in your character’s backstory acting how real people might behave or consistently with prior characterization, or are they acting in forced and contrived ways?
In general, there are a lot of elements commonly used in the backstories of teens and young adults that don’t hold up once subjected to a little scrutiny and common sense, or would realistically lead to complications and consequences that are never acknowledged or satisfactorily dealt with.
Many people have characters who were born in the US in the late 20th or early 21st century end up in orphanages. However, orphanages are all but gone in the US - the foster care system is mainly used instead. And then, children who are adopted out aren't adopted out to just anyone. (99% of the characters I see adopting children in fiction would be flat-out denied in the real world.)
Many Marvel Cinematic Universe OCs are raised on SHIELD bases not by any kind of parental figure, but by agents and handlers. (For the unfamiliar, SHIELD is an intergovernmental organization dedicated to keeping the world safe from the types of weird dangers you’d see in a superhero universe.) Not only is this unrealistic from a real-world perspective, it’s also unrealistic from an in-universe perspective: SHIELD did have an orphan who was a potential target on their hands at least once (Skye), and they had her raised in a series of foster homes while keeping a close watch on her. Likewise, SHIELD giving mysterious orphans and foundlings over to the Avengers to raise makes no sense, as they (and any similar organization) would absolutely not be handing over orphans and foundlings, no matter how strange and mysterious, over to a group of people who frequently engage in life-threatening activities, have intensely time-consuming responsibilities, and/or are prone to emotional instability.
In Stargate SG-1, there were a few cases where the SGC (a top secret airforce operation) had to deal with children in need of homes or care. In one instance a child was adopted by one of the characters who actually worked there, and this character was responsible and stable and had a job that wouldn’t (normally) require her to be away from home for days or weeks on end. In another instance a child who was actually a clone of someone else was given to someone else to raise with a cover story. Both of these are plausible enough.
Some stories I’ve read have people kidnapping random children for illegal experiments or training programs. In the real world, particularly in countries with developed and functioning legal systems, this would be a highly risky move. Missing children (especially pretty white girls in the Western world, which incidentally a lot of these characters are) tend to draw a lot of attention. By targeting children, these groups would potentially turn a lot of investigative attention their way, thereby risking the entire operation. (And keeping such a large program under covers indefinitely would be next to impossible.)
Some people have tried to handwave these things by saying that the character’s parents just don’t care. Aside from this making little sense (the characters are usually shown to have relatively comfortable lives beforehand, which doesn’t jive with the “uncaring parent” excuse), this ignores the fact that siblings, friends, peers, teachers, etc. would likely also notice the character’s disappearance, and that a mysterious disappearance like that might lead to the parents being investigated for murder, even if the parents attempted to explain the disappearance away by claiming that the child ran away or went to live with a relative.
Backstories for OCs often rely on one or more canon characters acting extremely out-of-character, even to the point of doing a complete 180 from canon characterization. Kind and responsible characters may be cruel and neglectful, or cold and distant characters may be warm and affectionate. Equally bad, a trait (or even a perceived trait) of a canon character might be exaggerated to an extreme. If you’re creating an OC and including canon characters in your character’s backstory, stop and critically and objectively review the characters’ behavior: do they really seem the type to act that way? Are those particular traits really that pronounced - or are they even there at all? Or have you simply been projecting yourself or your own biases onto the characters while ignoring everything that doesn’t fit? (See also: Telling Story Canon From Personal Bias, Erroneous Memories, & Fanwank.)
Also, if you're thinking about having character who is unusually accomplished for xir age, don't just throw in low numbers out of nowhere: certain positions require certain degrees and/or a minimum amount of experience to hold, and no matter how smart or gifted a person is the number of years it takes to earn those degrees or the amount of experience required isn't going to change. And then there's the simple fact that ageism is a thing - people do discriminate against people they perceive as being too young to be competent at something. This means that even if your character was some sort of genius prodigy, the character would realistically be often treated in a patronizing and condescending manner at best, and at worst not taken as seriously as someone older.
Don’t be a copycat.
Don’t copy huge chunks of backstory from other characters, particularly where the circumstances were highly rare or exceptional, or where they fairly well mirror another character’s backstory improbably closely. It’s one thing for a Hogwarts student to have had her immediate family killed by Voldemort (or more likely, on Voldemort’s orders), but for a family member to have saved her via sacrifice and for her to be sent to live with abusive relatives is another.
Also, don’t try to essentially make a mashup of other characters’ backstories, either, because invariably it’s pretty obvious that you couldn’t be bothered to think outside of the box and instead just lifted everything from characters you’re already familiar with.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with a character sharing some elements with other characters, particularly where they’re exceptionally common (eg, most people go to public school) or where they’re practically a prerequisite (EG, in an organization that favors hiring people with no family ties, it's reasonable that there would be a lot of orphans among them).
Shortcuts and conveniences: be sparse and stingy about them.
Depending on where you want your character to be in the story or roleplay, it may be tempting to hand out shortcuts and conveniences to your character - eg, exceptional gifts or talents from an early age, or being noticed and picked up out of relative obscurity by someone with clout.
Not all shortcuts are bad, but always keep in mind that the more shortcuts you give your character and the bigger they are, the less credible your character will be, especially if these shortcuts contradict previously-established canon rules and procedures. It’s one thing to make your character a prodigy who was able to attend college at age sixteen and got picked up to work at a prestigious company at twenty-three, but attending college at age ten and working at fifteen is absurd. An eleven-year-old with a gift for music being able to play the guitar extremely well after years of practice is believable, but an ordinary (even if extremely gifted) eleven-year-old being able to play like a pro after only playing a guitar for a month is not.
Now, in some universes there are things that could plausibly explain someone learning to expertly play the guitar in a short while - eg, supernatural powers, superhuman forces, etc. In that case, have at it but - you need to be ready and willing to accept the potential consequences and complications that would come with it and adjust your character’s psyche and history accordingly. You don’t want to end up using it just to handwave the presence of your character’s skill, nor do you want to end up using it to give your character a smooth and effortless ride to power and prestige.
The fewer discounts or free handouts your character gets, the better - make your character work, suffer, and even make sacrifices for xir goodies and achievements.
Also, you might be interested in:
Backstory Idea Generator
Basic Tips To Create Better Characters With Tragic & Traumatic Backstories
Things To Know If Your Character Will Be Augmented Or Experimented Upon
So You Want To Have A Powerful Or Talented Character Who Probably Won't Be Perceived As A Mary Sue?
Things About Skills, Talents, & Knowledge Writers Need To Know
Basic Tips To Improve Your OCs & Fan Characters
On Giving Your Characters Flaws & Weaknesses
Dropping In Characterization Without Dragging The Story
Common Problems In Roleplaying Characters
Common, Yet Terrible Character Descriptors - And How To Fix Them (And Write Better Descriptions In General)
Writing Character Profiles & Bios - Tips & Advice
Character Creation & Development Theory (Or, How To Make Characters 101!)
Character Development Questions
Changing Alignments, Allegiances, & Loyalties More Believably
On Writing & Roleplaying Mysterious Characters