With the modern tendency of interchanging, or interposing the meanings of, different words it may help to first consider various definitions of backstory.
‘A history or background created for a fictional character in a film or television programme.’ (Unknown)
‘A story that tells what led up to the man story or plot (as of a film).’ (Merriam Webster Dictionary)
‘A narrative providing history or background context, especially for a character or situation in a literary work, film, or dramatic series.’ (Dictionary.com)
‘An account of the events leading up to what is being written about now.’ (Macmillan Dictionary)
The interchanging and interposing mentioned at the start primarily revolve round the two words ‘backstory’ (or ‘back story’) and ‘background’. As may be seen this even arises in the first and third definitions.
In this context background is defined as:
‘The conditions that form the setting within which something is experienced.’ (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
‘Information essential to understanding of a problem or situation.’ (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
‘One’s origin, education, experience, etc., in relation to one’s present character, status, etc.’ (Dictionary.com)
‘The circumstances surrounding something.’ (Oxford English Dictionary)
The above consist formal dictionary definitions but as may be seen there still appears to be some overlap in comprehension.
Grass Root Comprehensions
The following lists reveal how grass root readers and authors tend to generally identify the properties of backstory and background.
Note: Bear in mind, as is usual in this website, it is literature (books) the focus is on, though some of the principles may apply equally to film and stage plays.
Some define backstory as something that:
- is directly tied to the essential growth and development of a story.
- develops reader’s understanding of character.
- raises the stakes by identifying past issues that may impact how a character is going to react to a current situation.
- shows a character’s psychology.
- indicates why a character acts as they do.
- reveals why a character thinks the way they do.
- adds realism.
- comprises events that happened earlier than the story itself.
- lists events that directly lead to the story.
- is a set of events presented as preceding and leading up to the plot.
- fills in gaps relating to a character’s motivation and depth.
These are some of the ideas people attribute to background:
- Family history (where born; parents; etc.)
- Work experience.
- Likes and dislikes.
- Social heritage.
- Personal development.
It is easy to understand why the words have become interchangeable and why their meanings tend to be interposed. However, there is a distinction as a careful reading of the above will indicate.
In strictest sense, a backstory’s purpose is to provide the reader with insight into a character’s current psychology and motivations and should directly impinge upon the immediate activity. The reader needs this information to make sense of why something is happening or of the world within which the story takes place (e.g. fantasy; science-fiction). Without it they may get lost or confused and fail to appreciate the tale.
Background should only be included where it is considered essential for the reader to comprehend and make sense of how a character developed into the person they are. For example: their parenthood and education may not have any bearing upon the story and therefore do not merit inclusion. However, there may be occasions when it is appropriate to provide a more rounded insight into a character’s persona. Then, as long as the author is sure, details may be incorporated but they should be as circumspect as possible. Too many unwarranted details can easily detract from a reader’s enjoyment. Of course, equally, too little may lead to confusion and misunderstanding of where a story is going or what or why something is happening.
Prior to writing and publishing this article, a survey was conducted to gain grass root opinions on the topic.
Respondents were asked: What do you think a backstory should consist? Five options, from which they were requested to select all they considered relevant, were presented. This is what they had to say.
42.9% – Events immediately before and leading up to the current story.
57.1% – Prior occurrences now influencing a character’s behaviour.
39.7% – A character’s history (Family; Education; Work; etc.).
14.3% – World and social background against which the story is set.
7.1% – Other (Please go to next question to enter details.)
Here are some of the additional comments that were entered under the next question referred to in the fifth option. All respondents were given the option to add their own thoughts.
‘Only the information that is critical to moving the plot forward or that is necessary for character development.’
‘Information about the past which creates more tension in the characters current circumstances.’
‘Information that makes the character 3 – dimentional without interrupting the flow of the narrative.’
The question was also posed, in varied formats, across a range of social media sites. The responses were not as clear but in general break down into similar percentages as those for the survey.
As may be seen a reasonable majority do appear to have the right idea about backstories, though there remains a proportional percentage who are sufficiently unclear to warrant a highlighting of the issue.
The overall, and generally accepted, purpose of a backstory is to provide such information as is necessary for a reader to comprehend a character’s current psychology and motivation.
Though it may be interesting for its own sake, a character’s detailed background is not usually required.
Naturally, the final decision must be the author’s however, they would be wise to consider the opinions shared by grass root readers and fellow authors (who are also readers).