Writing question: When and how do I use backstory, flashbacks and character memories?
To bring a character to life, to make them complex, sympathetic and richly conceived, they need context and history. We want to know where they’ve been, what they’ve experienced and witnessed. Knowing a villain was an abandoned orphan gives the reader a completely different emotional reaction to a character.
There are three tools we have as writers to achieve this:
3. Character memories
When we write, there are two tracks we are working with: the front story and the back story. These are two different stories and we can think of them as parallel lines, that at some point, will intersect and bring the two stories together.
So we see a character trying to do something in the front story, say, lose weight, or help her client get out of an abusive relationship, or get her daughter to talk to her after she has lost her boyfriend (examples from some of my books).
For each of these, there will be a parallel backstory: leaving a homeland to escape violence; losing a baby brother as a child; a date rape when she was a young woman. These are different stories from the character’s past and ostensibly, have nothing to do with the front story. Of course, these backstories provide our characters with their backstory wound – the piece of their history puzzle that helps the reader to understand them emotionally, their motivations, their fears, their longings. So it is vitally important that these backstories are as completely formed as the front story.
Backstory, however is often buried, and slowly revealed. This is a masterful way of releasing your character onto the page so that your reader is gently brought into emotional synchronicity with a character she or he may not fully understand upfront. When I teach writing character, I talk about each character having a ‘secret’ – this is often their backstory wound.
We want our reader to know that our character has something tucked away in his or her past that is painful, and we may offer clues, and subliminally suggest the secret through setting, or object placement or significance, or symbolism. Sometimes we don’t know yet what our character’s backstory wound is when we begin (this happened to me when I wrote Things Without A Name -I only worked it out eight months after I began to write the book.) We may not even fully comprehend what that backstory wound is when writing memoir. Often, in the writing, we stumble across a memory that we identify in the words of Leonard Cohen as ‘the place where the suffering began.’
When we write fiction, generally we want to begin with the front story – the action. The mistake many of us make is to begin with backstory or to get into backstory too soon. Think of that as ‘over-explaining.’ If we can hold off from bringing in backstory for the first few chapters, we give our readers a chance to ‘get into the story,’ to get caught up in the character’s conflict, and to care about the character’s predicament. We should aim to stay true to the front storyline for a good few chapters before we stray into history.
Often writers resort to backstory because their front story is not strong enough. So watch out for that. If the backstory is stronger than the front story, it may be your main story. Backstory is there to provide insight to the reader and to show our character’s wounding and motivation for their behaviour in the front story. This allows our readers to deeply connect with and understand our character. It is the ‘why’ of your story – why your character is the way he or she is and will be deeply connected to the themes of your book.
How can we bring in backstory? We insert it in what our character says. It slips into conversation; it pushes its way through into the front story.
E.g. ‘Ughh,’ Janet shuddered. ‘I don’t ever want to go back there again.’ Beads of sweat broke out on her brow.
‘You okay?’ Trent asked.
‘I thought I was done with that place. Happiness never had a chance there.’
At some point we will have to employ a flashback to reveal to our reader what happened to Janet ‘there.’
Flashbacks are stories from the character’s past where we take our readers back into a moment from our character’s lives. They might be moments from childhood, or scenes from another relationship. They must of course be thematically linked to the plot of your front story. They must shed some light or insight into the main story. A flashback is a dedicated scene which you enter and exit. It can be a stand alone chapter.
Some flashbacks are subplots and may work tangentially to the main story. Some will be directly related to the backstory. We don’t stumble into a flashback. They are clearly employed. Flashbacks will have their own emotional arcs and may even be paradoxically inclined against the main theme. E.g. if your main theme is betrayal, we may have a backstory moment where your character trusted someone for the first time.
Example: Chapter 68 from my book Things Without A Name
Chapter 68: Suitcase
‘It’s only for a few weeks,’ my mother said to me. She was standing next to a large brown suitcase on wheels. Nonna was holding my hand, tightly, as though I was a kite the wind might rip from her grasp at any moment.
‘But that’s a long time,’ I said. ‘Seven days in a week, times by a few is about fourteen or fifteen or even more . . .’
‘You’re my clever girl,’ my mother said, kissing the top of my head. ‘I just need to go and have a bit of time to myself . . . to . . . feel better . . .’
‘Are you feeling sick?’ I asked her.
‘A little. I’ve got a sore place in my heart, and I have to go and get it better, so I can be a good mother to you and Liberty.’
‘But you are a good mother,’ I said.
My mother’s eyes filled with tears. ‘Darling girl,’ she said in a whisper.
‘Please don’t go, Mummy,’ I said. I felt Nonna’s grip on my hand tightening.
‘I have to.’
‘I promise I’ll be good if you stay . . . What if you don’t come back?’ I asked her.
‘I will be back, and when I do, I will be much stronger, and a mummy has to be strong, for her children . . . and besides, Dad, Nonna and Nonno Antonio will be here too, so you will have lots of people to look after you.’
‘Si,’ Nonna said.
I reached out to my mother, pulling my hand from Nonna’s, and clung to her. I buried my face in her skirt which smelled of the heart-break of tangerine and honeysuckle.
Gently, she untangled me. Holding my hand, she led me to the cupboard in the lounge room where she opened the chess set she had got as a little girl. She removed the black queen and held it out to me.
‘I have a very important job for you—will you look after my black queen while I’m gone? Mummy needs her black queen, it’s her lucky charm, it always helps her win. Will you keep her safe and give her back to me when I come back?’
I took the black queen from her and closed my fist around it. It felt hard and cold in my palm. I clutched it for dear life.
Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?
We can also employ the technique of character memories where our characters reveal themselves, their vulnerabilities, their stories through remembering their past. These moments will often happen in scenes where a character is sharing something from his or her past with another character. It’s a moment of vulnerability for our character. Our character may choose to share a secret, a story, a memory with another character. They tell us the story in their own words, using dialogue.
Here is an example from chapter 79 from my book Things Without A Name (warning, spoiler alert)
‘I also made a mistake,’ he says so quietly I wonder whether I have conjured it.
‘It was just another ordinary night out with our friends . . . We were hanging out at this bar called Friskies because we’d heard there was a team of Spanish netballers who were coming there after training. Noah was into Spanish girls. He was even taking classes. Just hearing Spanish made him horny. When you’re eighteen, you don’t think about anything except what’s under that little netball skirt. Like how many you’ve actually had, who’s driving . . . if you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist . . .’
I am holding my breath.
‘I didn’t see that Merc coming,’ he says. ‘I swear to God . . . I didn’t even see it.’
I let out a sigh. I sniff.
‘I didn’t see it . . .’
‘You didn’t,’ I say.
‘Trouble with mistakes is that they’re like things underwater. You can’t tell if they’re big or small or near or far, until you stick your hand in, and what seemed far away is actually near . . . little things . . . like forgetting to indicate.’ He exhales a little puff of what could have been a laugh in a different story. ‘Most of the time, you’ll get hooted at for that. Worst case—you get called an asshole . . . I got to bury my brother . . . the one person I loved and would have died for . . . I guess that’s what they call irony . . . except it’s my life.’
I take this information in, a tainted bequest, and clasp it close like a struggling creature. It beats against the walls of my ribs. It hurts.
‘We all make mistakes, Faith . . .’
I have nothing I can give him back that words can hold so I just sit in the silence. But I reach into it, and press my unlovely fingers on the source of his bleed, and I hold them there. He is quiet. For the first time since I was a little girl sitting birdwatching with my father, silence becomes a holding place, like water where things shift in suspension and not something that happens to you, forcing itself on you so that you are never the same again.
I hear him exhale. And then he says to me, ‘Maybe it’s time for you to think about doing something that isn’t so stressful.’
‘You just don’t like my chewed-up nails,’ I say.
‘I’ll match your chewed up nails and raise you an abdominal scar.’
‘I’ll come and help you to scrub it off later,’ he says.
So now we’re having a date to remove misogynist graffiti from my car windscreen.
In my world, this is what is called making progress.
We can use character memories in an interesting way – we can let the character ‘tell the memory’ in one way, and then we can write a flashback where the memory is told from a different point of view or with a different interpretation. This will allow our reader to question the credibility of the character, and if the main character is the narrator, he may subsequently become an ‘unreliable narrator,’ as our readers won’t be sure whether he is trustworthy or not. Our character may reveal himself as a liar, exaggerator or victim depending on how he chooses to talk about a memory. This in itself, sheds light on the character’s backstory – who he is as a result of what has happened to him.
Have fun exploring and experimenting with these writing techniques to build up a complex character with a rich and interesting history you reveal slowly and strategically depending on the emotional journey you want to take your reader on.