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.
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. No backstory, except “years of studying”
Yes and no. Backstory looms large, but only because it is totally unprocessed and therefore totally present.
YES. Very much so. We get a flashback to his childhood later on, but it’s just a gag.
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.
Do the Right Thing
YES. Entirely. We never learn any backstory, other than what we can infer.
YES. we never learn much backstory
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
YES. Jumping out of the car defines her
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.
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.
YES. but much more by attitude than action.