Back Story vs Character History, Part Two

ACFW Advice, Authors and writing, Characters, tips Leave a Comment

by Rachel Hauck

Welcome back. Yesterday we discussed the differences between character history and back story. Today, let’s learn more about character history and how to use it to strengthen your writing.

Like I said yesterday, Character History is hot, lean and sleek, fast and quick, in and out, not weighing down the story.
Back story, we all know, slows down the action. We’ve heard the rule: No back story for the first 30-50 pages.

But wait, what if an author needs the reader to know something critical about the character for the opening scenes to make sense?

That, my lovelies, is character history.

For example, Billy Bob is about to go on his first police call — a possible robbery — since returning to the force after being shot in the gut while responding to a bank hold up. He’s nervous. He’s anxious. When he gets inside the establishment, he draws his gun a bit too early and almost shoots his partner.

What’s going on with him? If we stick to the “no back story rule” we miss the importance of this moment. His jittery nerves just make us think he drank too much coffee. We don’t care.

What the reader needs a bit of history. A line or two of prose, or even better dialog, that gives the reader a hint of Billy Bob’s emotional state.
The scar on his shoulder from the bullet wound burned and twisted as Billy Bob entered the bank. It’d only been four weeks… and in a split moment, he couldn’t remember why he’d returned to this job.

Ah, the reader has learned there’s something more to the story. It ups the readers attachment to Billy Bob. This bit of history adds tension. What bullet in the gut? When? Who shot him? Why?

All of those question, left hanging, can be answered later in the story. Good stuff. If the writer wanted, s/he could add a line of dialog from his partner.

“You okay?”

“I’m here aren’t I?”

“Just wondering.”

“You do your job, I’ll do mine.”

Why was his partner asking Billy Bob if he was okay? Hmm? The reader wants to find out more so s/he turns the page.

Back story is another matter. Back Story stops the forward action and talks about things unrelated to the current scene and emotion. Sure, it’s about Billy Bob and it’s all true, but the reader doesn’t need to know he wanted to be a cop since he was ten while our hero is stalking a burglar.

Here’s a back story blob:

“Since taking a bullet in the gut, Billy Bob wondered if he could still be a cop on the beat. But his dad had been a cop and his father before him. Every Martin man wore the badge. Billy Bob remembered the first time he held his father’s badge, feeling the cool metal in his palm, stroking his finger over the shiny brass. He knew then, at then, he’d be a cop just like his father. Mother didn’t want him to be. She worried about Dad, but if a man put on blue and a gold badge, wasn’t he invincible?”

Wow! All that while checking on a robbery call? By now, the reader’s forgotten what was going on. The burglar has escaped while our hero mused over his past. Or worse, shot Billy Bob’s partner.

The reader doesn’t need that much information. Especially in the midst of a tense scene. Save it for later. Perhaps in a conversation with his Dad when our hero, Billy Bob, is facing a voice-of-truth moment.

Do I still want to be a police office?

Why did I become a police officer?

Back Story is more for the author than the reader. Character History is for the reader, and the power of the story.

So, what’s Character History and how do we use it?

1. Character History applies to the current action on the stage. If your heroine cannot stand the hero, don’t let her behave irrationally, leaving the reader in the dark. Don’t give us a snippy rude girl without giving us motivation.

Drop in a line of history. “Ever since seventh grade when he stole her PE clothes from her locker and she got detention, Jen couldn’t stand Colby Witherspoon.”

2. Drop in history and exit quickly. Leave the reader a bit curious. In writing Love Starts With Elle, I had a paragraph or so of history about Elle so the reader could understand the significant emotion of the scene and what action was about to take place – a proposal. Elle had set up Operation Wedding Day for herself in the book, Sweet Caroline. She wanted to find a man. But her plan didn’t work. When she let it go, THEN she met the handsome Jeremiah Franklin. When Elle got her own book, I needed to add that bit of Operation Wedding Day “history” to help the reader “get” and care about Elle.

3. Character History sets up tension. Drop in a line about how your character is afraid of…. snakes or heights. Don’t you love how Indiana Jones hates snakes, then gets dumped in a pit of them? We first see his fear when he’s escaping in a prop plane after taking the artifact from the cave. We don’t get a bunch of lines about why and how he’s afraid of snakes, we just see his reaction. Then when he’s dumped in the pit, our skin tingles. It’s Indy’s worst nightmare. Most of ours too! Can you imagine how boring the scene would’ve been if Indy went on for six or seven more lines about how his big brother used to toss snakes on him when they played in his grandma’s creek? Who cares at that point? We just need to know his history with snakes. Period. He hates them.

4. Character History is part of the prose painting. It’s a nice clutch on forward action. It helps the reader take a breath and get into the heart and mind of the protagonist. But be careful. Just a bit of history is all we need. If your character is passionate about ending injustice of some kind, show us that passion on the page, then through dialog or a fast line or prose, hint at why this injustice bothers your heroine so much. But don’t give the reader a montage that begins when our heroine is ten and ends when she’s sixteen, then brings us back to the current moment. Give just enough to fill the reader in.

5. Character History sheds light on the protagonist motivations. Let the history pertain to what’s happening on stage, in the current scene. If your character is dealing with, oh, say, an errant child, don’t stop and give a dissertation on the protagonist own childhood and upbringing. Not necessary. Boring. But, do tell us how her mother was so kind and patient, and it frustrates her how she is so impatient and sharp. That’s all the reader needs to get what’s going on with the protagonist motivation.

Watch out for phrases like, “a sound brought her back into the present.” Ooo, where did she go? On a back story rabbit trail? We all love to sit and reminisce, but a novel is about tension, conflict and moving forward. Most of us don’t stop to muse or reflect while arguing with our friend or trying to save the world. Right?

Now, these are guidelines. Once in awhile, we do have a character drift off in thought for a moment, but be guarded. Ask yourself if there is a better, more emotionally impacting way to present the information. If not, then go for the reflect and keep it brief.

So, there you have it. The bout between Back Story and Character History. Go out writing and have a clean fight with your words.

Ding, ding!

Rachel Hauck is an award winning, best selling author. She is past president of ACFW and now serves on the Executive Board. Rachel is also a writing teach and craft coach, and mentor. She is the book therapist for My Book Therapy.Com.

Her book, Once Upon A Prince, May 2013, earned a Starred review from Publisher’s Weekly.

Visit her web site at

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