When I meet someone new, we start to talk about what we have in common, and if we hit it off, we tell stories. Stories of events, where we came from, the people in our lives. In other words, backstory.
We share these things because the events in our lives have shaped us into the people we are today. It’s the same with characters in a fictional story. She stood at the crest of the hill, her short sun-bleached hair tousled by the wind. Mud streaked across her NAU sweatshirt. Okay, we have a snapshot of her, but who is she?
In order for that character to seem real, we need to know her background. Was she an only child? Did she have any pets? Did she stomp in mud puddles or did her mother keep her indoors? Writers know these things, and since we’re trying to introduce the character, we want to tell the reader everything we know, as soon as possible.
That’s where we run into trouble. If that person I just met immediately bombarded me with all his history and his most intimate details, I’d probably back away. A story here, a snippet there: that’s how we get to know someone.
I once had a dog named Barney. We left him home alone while we went to a movie, and when we got home, a bag of two dozen dinner rolls was missing from the kitchen counter. We couldn’t believe a fifteen-pound terrier could have eaten all those rolls, but they were gone. Only the empty bag remained. Then we began to find them. One was in the shower. Another behind the toilet. Two behind the laundry hamper. He’d even scratched up the carpet in the corner of the bedroom and hidden one underneath. We were finding rolls for weeks.
We need to hide our backstory the way a terrier hides food. A comment here about a camping trip. A memory there of being forced to wear a scratchy dress to a wedding. A hint now and then that there’s a story behind the story. If we do it right, the reader is turning the pages, eager to find out more. And by the end of the story, we’ve made a friend.