Each of us carries a backstory. We share the details of our pasts with others. They pay attention depending on their investment in us, or how well we tell it. Or they don’t. Someone who wasn’t there, who didn’t share the experience, simply cannot feel it the way we did. The inherent challenge in sharing our history is to make it exciting. You can probably recall a time when someone told you a boring anecdote. Maybe they included too much detail or unnecessary tangents.
Fictional characters are much the same way: their background informs and shapes them. It helps to establish who they are. Often a characters’ past includes vital information, but writers can err and include backstory in large boring lumps that readers don’t want or need.
Fictional characters aren’t real people. Their psychological composition just isn’t as complex, no matter how well we write them. Yet this isn’t a lack. It actually gives writers an advantage. We can determine which parts of the character’s background aren’t yawn-inducing and which are compelling enough to be worth sharing. We can tweak a characters’ background to make it serve the story, and we can learn what to tell the reader or what to leave out.
Any piece written in third person narrative is a recount of the characters’ past. The narrator is looking back on events and telling us what happened. To the reader this recap seems to happen in real time. A sense of immediacy is crucial to pace and keeping things in motion. Backstory is important, but it should never be more compelling than the main tale. If the past is so juicy that it must interrupt the present action, then you’re probably starting the story in the wrong place.
This is one of those areas where a writer must be honest with their self. Much like that tale you’ve told on every first date, it might not be that funny or interesting to the other party. Look at the level of backstory you’re including. If an objective reading tells you it’s essential, consider if it deserves to be center stage. If it bores you, keep it to a minimum.