Every novel needs a backstory like cultures need myths like people need spines. Without growing a backbone, our skeletons collapse on themselves. We’ve talked about the soul, the heart, the joints, and the skeleton of a story. Now it’s time to discuss that which holds our novel’s outline upright–the backstory.
Much like the big bang, a backstory creates the universe and/or origin for your characters and novel. Key elements which inform an inciting event are those major developments in your protagonist’s past. For example, a broken leg that never healed properly might produce the character quirk of an antagonist like Mr. Glass in Unbreakable. His bone disease formed the basis of his identity as a “villain.” How he chose to respond to his illness shaped the development of his character. Furthermore, Mr. Glass’s refusal to live life outside the perspective of his illness produced unresolved issues which complicate the life of the protagonist in the film. If you’ve seen the movie, when we learn about Mr. Glass and his illness is critical.
If you haven’t seen the movie, that’s okay, too. The important thing to note is when we’re introduced to the trigger from his past. This occurs about a quarter of the way into the story. It’s a powerful event which directly influences the character and other characters in the film. The antagonist’s response to the inciting event produces conflict for our protagonist which grabs the reader’s attention. When Mr. Glass finds the protagonist meets his beliefs about villains and heroes, he acts in a way which forces the protagonist to be a hero. Inciting events are always followed by action.
Other elements of a backstory include the minor, potentially rich details of a character. In Unbreakable, the protagonist is a divorcee with a job as a security guard. The most significant events of his life are a recent divorce, never being ill but once, and surviving a train wreck. Whereas Mr. Glass’s inciting event sets his role as antagonist, the train wreck is the true catalyst built upon the antagonist’s backstory. As a writer, a good back story means including:
- major parts of a character’s life,
- their important relationships,
- where they work,
- their education or travel experiences,
- and other key facts about a character (i.e., illness, deaths).
The best backstories are’t displayed in their entirety, either. Instead, they’re hinted at. Much like the flesh which covers our own spines, a good backstory may be glimpsed when the author bends the information a certain way. Don’t bend over backwards or forwards to reveal all, but tease your audience with a poised, balletic display of your story’s spine.