You’re pretty familiar with Bruce Wayne, aka Batman. He lives in Gotham City, he stops crazy villains, and he spends a lot of his time with bats. But did you also know his parents are dead!? That’s what we call backstory, something most characters in fiction have with them whenever we start their story. So even if you start the story understanding where the character is at presently, there may be more to them that is not made immediately apparent. But what is a backstory, how would you define backstory, and what types of backstory styles are there?
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There are plenty of character backstory examples, what they consist of, and how they can be used. But before we dig into all of that, we want to provide a backstory definition and some of their common characteristics.
What is a backstory?
Backstory is a set of events that have occurred before the main story. These events can either be alluded to, described by one or more characters, or shown in flashback. Oftentimes a backstory for a character is used to give some quick info on an introduced character or to dramatically reveal something about a character later. Backstory can also just be used for the writer to make their characters as developed as possible, without the need to actually mention any of it in the narrative.
Backstory Characteristics Include:
- Complete histories about a character
- Shocking revelations important to the present narrative
- Set dressing to build the world around the characters
How to Write a Backstory
Creating a backstory for your character
If you’re writing a character, backstory is pretty important to make sure they are as three-dimensional as can be. For example, if your superhero was born on a farm and raised by a loving couple, it could be a major reason for why they’re so virtuous. There could even be a scene later on where the superhero is reflecting on their early days, maybe even during a critical story moment, furthering their character development.
Making sure there is a backstory for your character also makes them more relatable; if you do a really good job with it, the backstory will feel natural. Think of how vital Bruce Wayne’s backstory is to his character and how it can be expressed without being talked about at length.
Granted, some writers and directors love showing us the Waynes dying again and again. But if you look at Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), this is saved for a later and serious plot point. Even before that, you can get a feel for Bruce being reclusive, quiet, and possibly hurt, though you may not know by what.
Ultimately, no matter what kind of backstory for a character you’re interested in deploying, you want to make sure it benefits the characters. If the villain of your story is bad simply because they spilled milk once, that may not be the most effective backstory. So always make sure your backstory is as fleshed out as can be so that your characters will also be fully developed.
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Character Backstory Examples
How to write a backstory
Having backstories for your characters is a great way to make sure they’re deep, relatable, and believable. That said, backstories aren’t just there to help you as a writer; usually, the audience also gets to learn about it one way or another. Here are just a few ways of employing backstory into your story.
What is a backstory that focuses on the setting? That would be world building. Backstories are very often done to flesh out the world, along with the characters in it. The Star Wars series is a prime example of this, as we get to learn about Luke Skywalker’s father from Obi-Wan and the history that preceded him.
There’s also off-hand remarks about the Kessel Run and the fact that Luke’s parents aren’t even around (he lives with his aunt and uncle). Not to mention that Princess Leia had a whole life on Alderaan before she was kidnapped by the Empire.
Backstory can also come in the form of exposition, though you will want to make sure it’s well executed. Going back to Star Wars, A New Hope lays out some backstory in its opening title crawl. Iconic to be sure, but most movies you see will not feature this. The closest other example which often appears is text in the beginning of the movie, though this can also be tricky to pull off.
If you want to introduce your backstory early on, you can present your characters in a situation that often necessitates exposition. Take, for example, The Shining, where the first scene has Jack interviewing for the Overlook Hotel caretaker position, which provides a pivotal backstory.
Another example comes from the Back to the Future series, which starts with an established backstory that is elaborated on later. A notable scene is when Marty finds Doc in 1955 and has to explain his situation and prove he’s actually from the future by recounting specific events and details.
There are many, many different ways to provide exposition, and we actually cover a lot of them in our deep dive into more exposition examples in detail.
There is probably no backstory example more common than the flashback. Any number of movies, shows, and video games feature flashbacks to function as backstory.
Some movies consist almost entirely of flashbacks to tell their story, like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, both of which are bonafide cinema classics. Other films use flashback more sparingly, which can make its use later on in the film effective to the narrative.
Bringing it back to the Caped Crusader, there is a notable flashback scene in Batman Forever which sheds light on Bruce Wayne’s past. As far as this individual film is concerned, this flashback is our biggest explanation behind why he became Batman and chose the bat as his symbol. Also, the movie doesn’t show the Waynes dying, so that’s a plus.
You can learn more about flashbacks, in both movies and literature, in our flashback article covering the topic in-depth, which also covers other techniques you can use in screenplays and movies.
Writing Strong Characters
We have gone over what is a backstory, the types, and what to look out for. Now it’s time to learn how you can keep fleshing out your characters with tips on character development. We go in-depth with what to keep in mind when working on character development, along with examples and a free worksheet.