Wednesday, November 03, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?

Many writers assume a hero will be interesting because of an interesting backstory, but the audience doesn’t actually care much about a hero’s backstory. Heroes are interesting because of their actions and attitudes as the story progresses, not because of what happened in the past. 

Some recommend that you preplan every possible fact about your hero’s backstory, all the way back to where her grandfather went to college, but if you actually take the time to list five hundred facts about the past, then you might run into some danger:
  • You’ll bore yourself to tears, getting sick of your heroes long before they have a chance to come alive on the page. 
  • You’ll commit yourself to randomly selected story details and feel less willing to change your hero’s past on the fly as you write—to add special skills or tangled relationships from the past that can juice up the conflict or provide additional ironies. 
  • You’ll feel compelled to reveal this epic backstory, even though the audience won’t care. 
  • You’ll be tempted to use backstory as a substitute for front story, differentiating your characters based on where they’ve been in the past rather than how they act now. This is a huge mistake. You should be far more focused on your hero’s present and future. 
Every year, there are terrible TV pilots about quirky groups of cops. Each member of the team stops the story dead to reveal a long, complicated backstory, but their current plans and tactics are virtually identical.

Differentiate your characters based on their behavior, language, and attitudes. You want characters who will all react differently to the same situation. Don’t differentiate where they came from; differentiate where they’re going.

Don’t get me wrong: As long as you’re ready to know more than you show, it’s okay to write out a full bio of each character. Just because your heroes have baggage doesn’t mean they should take it out of the overhead bin during the flight.

Most of the time, the audience is content to simply guess the hero’s backstory. If your hero became a cop because he came from a long line of Irish cops, or became a preacher because he was always the most pious kid on his block, you don’t need to tell us that. We can guess.

The only good reason to reveal a backstory is if it’s an ironic backstory: Maybe your cop comes from a long line of college professors, or your preacher used to be a gang member. These are backstories worth mentioning.

In Margin Call, the big-time stockbroker Jeremy Irons quizzes his underling Zachary Quinto about where he came from. We find out that, rather than being a trained stock analyst, Quinto started out as a rocket scientist working at a jet propulsion laboratory, then jumped into finance because the money was so much better. Not only does this give Quinto an ironic backstory, but it reveals the theme of the movie: Our cleverest minds, which once helped us soar to new heights, are now put to use dreaming up crooked schemes that crash our economy and create nothing but wreckage.

Irons’s backstory, on the other hand, is never revealed, because we can guess where he came from, and that’s fine. Not every character needs to reveal backstory. Most of the time, the audience is happy to fill it in.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES, almost entirely.


YES. Entirely

An Education

YES. No backstory, except “years of studying”

The Babadook

Yes and no.  Backstory looms large, but only because it is totally unprocessed and therefore totally present.

Blazing Saddles

YES. Very much so.  We get a flashback to his childhood later on, but it’s just a gag.

Blue Velvet

YES. We never learn any backstory.

The Bourne Identity

YES. For the most part.  All we or he know about him is what he can do, not who he was.


YES. Mostly, though her backstory with the bakery looms large.


YES. although, after we’ve come to love his current actions and attitudes, his ironic backstory proves to be equally interesting.


YES. The backstory is interesting, but it’s not what defines him.

Donnie Brasco


Do the Right Thing

YES. Entirely.  We never learn any backstory, other than what we can infer. 

The Farewell

YES. we never learn much backstory

The Fighter

YES. Well, he, his whole family, and really his whole town is defined by his brother’s backstory (while Micky doesn’t really have one of his own), but the fact that Micky puts up with that actually does a good job of defining him.



The Fugitive

YES. Very much so.  We get almost no backstory.  When they want to show that he’s a good guy, they don’t flashback to his heroic deeds as a doctor, they allow him to have new doctor deeds, even though he has no time for that.

Get Out

YES. Backstory becomes very important, but it doesn’t come into play until we’ve bonded to him (It does tie in to one reason we like him: He checks on the deer because nobody checked on his mom, but we only realize that on a secord or third viewing)

Groundhog Day

YES. Entirely. We get no backstory whatsoever.

How to Train Your Dragon


In a Lonely Place

YES. His problems are defined by almost getting in that fight, not by what we then find out about his stalled out career.

Iron Man

YES. We meet him in Afghanistan and love his behavior there before we get any history, which is then dealt with quickly. No flashbacks, no baggage. Compare to the sequel.

Lady Bird

YES. Jumping out of the car defines her

Raising Arizona

YES. Despite all that opening narration, we know very little backstory, just current actions.




YES. Very much so.  We never get much backstory at all.

The Shining

NO. Jack is defined more by his backstory than his present.  Danny is defined by his present actions.


YES. He’s focused on his past, but we’re not. We see that it’s his action and attitudes that are the problem, not the past.

The Silence of the Lambs

Sort of. Backstory plays a big part.

Star Wars


Sunset Boulevard

YES. but much more by attitude than action. 


Oona Cava said...

I just finished your book & this specific section was incredibly helpful. I (and I think many writers) have a tendency to feel like leaving out backstory is somehow cheating but we also know that pure backstory is boring, so we end up starting our stories earlier (where the backstory would start) instead of opening it by going basically right into the action. After thinking about this in relation to my WIP, I cut out a massive chunk, right out of the overly long first quarter, solving that problem as well. Thank you!

Matt Bird said...