If you’ve been writing for any length of time, I’m sure you’ve heard or read warnings about backstory. Don’t give the reader too much at once. Beware the info dump. Yada, yada, yada. In fact, I’ve written two posts about the infodump problem, here and here. And there’s a good reason for these warnings. Too much backstory is like an overlarge anchor. It drags the story to a halt. There is no forward movement at all.
Unfortunately, some writers worry too much about this particular problem, weighing down the story with backstory, that they go a little overboard when seeking a solution. They go to extremes to avoid the risk of the infodump and provide no backstory whatever. None. Nada. The problem with this is that backstory is still like an anchor. Too little and your story is adrift in a motivationless sea. (No, I’m not sure motivationless is technically a word but I’m going with it anyway).
Not surprisingly, the solution is to strive for a happy medium. Backstory tells the reader what happened before the main story. It explains why the character does what she does and why she makes these specific decisions. You need some to keep your character’s actions from seeming random. Backstory not only helps your reader understand your character, it can help them care.
What does backstory have to do with caring? I just read Suzanne Brockmann’s Do or Die. In this book, I met a secondary character named Francine. Francine is the best get away driver ever. She is a total bad ass and more than a little hard around the edges. Hard to love? You better believe it. But the main character is devoted to her. So is her brother and his husband. Okay, that made me like her a little more because if they like her there must be something I’m not seeing. I’m not going to say exactly what was revealed in the backstory because I don’t want to give it away but suffice it to say that things happened when she was a college student that shut her down emotionally. Knowing what happened, I could look at her and realize that she isn’t all hard edges but someone trying to shield herself.
When you write, don’t forget the backstory. You need it in both fiction and nonfiction to help readers understand your characters.