Backstories. We all have them. They're events in our past that we've embraced, or buried to save other people pain, or in some cases, to save ourselves pain. Most people have something in their history they hold close to their chests. What has happened to us affects who we are; our lives are a series of events that make or break us.
Of course, in our stories, in our fanfictions, we want to emulate our humanity and translate it into our characters. There's no person without a story to tell, be it good, bad, or ugly.
Backstory can make a story. It's strange to think about - that someone's unrelated life experiences somehow thicken a narrative and allow insight to events. Secrets can compound a character, make them more three-dimensional, create conflict, or further plotline.
For example, if you're writing a story about an isolated scientist, he might have become isolated because of things that happened to him in his past. (An experiment gone wrong hurt someone he cared about, so now he works alone.)
A good fandom example of using backstory to expand a story is Katniss Everdeen. She's a fighter, but she also cares deeply for her younger sister, Primrose. That may be because her father died when she was young, and she had to take care of both her mother and her little sister afterwards. It made her harder, but also very capable of managing her own well-being and the well-being of others.
If her father hadn't died, would she have been the Mockingjay? Probably not.
Suzanne Collins clued us in very slowly on the fact that her father died, first broadly implying that she had no dad in the home. Then she fed us the information needed to come to our own conclusions, one piece at a time. Finally, she told us what happened - he died in a mining accident. She balanced backstory with plot excellently, making Katniss a fuller, stronger, more identifiable character.
An issue I often see that Suzanne Collins handled tactfully is the ever-threatening "info dump." Or too much exposition, whatever term you prefer.
Inexperienced writers often will directly tell backstory within the very first page of writing. Would The Hunger Games be as compelling if Suzanne had written:
"I'm Katniss Everdeen. My dad died in a mining accident when I was young, so I had to take care of my sister and my mom. It made me a stronger person, but it also made me colder."
This is satisfactory, but it isn't skillful. It's kind of clunky and inelegant and obvious, and you want a backstory to be anything but obvious.
You don't want to tell the readers your character's backstory, you want to show them, slowly, over time, through dialogue, thoughts.
If you're writing about a character who's homeless because their parents kicked them out, don't tell your readers why they're homeless the first chapter. Then, after a few chapters, you start giving out hints, like: "She shivered as she saw something that reminded her of her parents."
Your readers should think, "What happened to her parents? Are they dead? Are they sick? Why is the main character homeless?"
A few chapters later, the main character could mention something to a supporting character about how cruel the main character's father used to be, maybe. The supporting character pries, and says, "It has something to do with your mom and dad, doesn't it?" and the main character could refuse to answer.
This way, your readers can start adding things up over several chapters, and it'll make a much more dynamic story with suspense.
Remember, it isn't the secret that creates the suspense - it's the keeping of the secret. Dragging out the backstory and keeping the readers guessing will make your story more exciting. Patience is key. If you don't have the patience, you'll show your hand all at once, and the tension will be lost within the span of one paragraph.
Think of the story like a new friend. Would you tell someone you met yesterday your entire life story, or your deepest secret? Backstories are incredibly important, but they must be told at a pace, or else you'll end up chasing people away. Reveal what you think is appropriate at an appropriate time! Your story isn't just a story, it's a piece of you, and you need to form a strong relationship with it.
Go steady, and get writing!
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