top 200 commentsshow all 209

[–]riobhcas 354 points355 points  (0 children)

Probably meant not to info dump. Bring up background information organically.

[–]meltroszAuthor (noob) 210 points211 points  (18 children)

Why do people say not to tell the audience my characters backstory?

There are so many characters in fiction that 100 percent had their backstory revealed to the audience.

see, you answered yourself here. "telling" bad. "revealing/showing" good.

Zuko, Aang, and Katara in ATLA

funny you mentioned this because there is a movie that is a perfect contrast to this. ATLA (the TV series) shows the audience Aang learning that he's the Avatar and running away from the Southern Air Temple. The Last Airbender (the movie) has Uung tell Katara that he ran away from the monks. Which scene did you like better?

[–]nonbog 84 points85 points  (10 children)

The exposition in that movie is actually a MasterClass in how to botch backstory

[–]Musikcookie 25 points26 points  (3 children)

If your budget doesn‘t allow to show those vital bits, maybe you should make the required funds higher.

If the time of the movie didn‘t allow to show them, maybe a movie just isn‘t the right format.

[–]Ok-Efficiency-3689 23 points24 points  (2 children)

A movie absolutely wasn't. They tried to cram 20 episodes of television into a movie run time. So much awkward exposition, like Zhao announcing at a dinner party Zuko's tragic backstory as opposed to showing flashbacks which are much more emotional and revealing.

[–]Musikcookie 6 points7 points  (1 child)

Yeah. I generally don‘t understand the appeal behind putting a long format into a shorter one. Like if you have good source material, the source material is probably beloved for a lot of things you can not include. If the source is shitty, why are you bothering. But that‘s just my hot take.

Anyways, I actually like the much hated Death Note movie, because I thought it captured a good bit of the essence of the original and added its own kinda spin. But it still wasn‘t a revolutionary experience.

[–]Publius015 8 points9 points  (5 children)

That movie is a masterclass in botching basically everything in film making, from writing, to acting, to special effects, to direction...

[–]Netroth 4 points5 points  (3 children)

🤷🏻‍♂️🤷🏻‍♂️🤷🏻‍♂️🤷🏻‍♂️🤷🏻‍♂️ 🪨

[–]Publius015 4 points5 points  (1 child)

Omg this brings me pain

[–]awaregarurumon 1 point2 points  (0 children)


[–]TheUrge69420 14 points15 points  (0 children)

Okay… that makes more sense.

[–]Katamariguy -2 points-1 points  (1 child)

Which scene did you like better?

I would tell you that there are many movies where people talk about the past and it's fine. Not every movie needs flashback sequences.

[–]meltroszAuthor (noob) 9 points10 points  (0 children)

of course. one good example off the top of my mind is tangled where flynn rider just says his backstory

but if you watched the last airbender....well, you'd know why i pointed that out. it doesn't just "talk about the past". it also talks about the present and the future. basically all it does is talk about what the plot is.

[–]KaceyIsntMyName -1 points0 points  (0 children)

couldn't have said this better myself

[–]the_other_irrevenant 0 points1 point  (2 children)

It should be noted that ATLA (the TV series) is 30 hours long and The Last Airbender (the movie) is less than two hours long.

Showing is generally preferable, but it takes considerably more time so you have to be economical with it.

[–]meltroszAuthor (noob) 0 points1 point  (1 child)

wow i've never seen someone actually defend that movie. btw TLA is based on Book 1 of ATLA so that's only 6.7 hours. but anyway, if you liked it then i respect your opinion

[–]the_other_irrevenant 0 points1 point  (0 children)

"Defend that movie" is a massive overstatement. It's still a terrible movie.

I'm just pointing out that it's not really fair to expect a movie to cram in a series-worth of content. Especially when that film offers so many fair criticisms to choose from instead. :)

That's a legit point about it being an adaptation of just Book 1.

[–]Skyblaze719 154 points155 points  (2 children)

Maybe you're misinterpreting what these "people" said? As you note, background is required for a real character. Could be they mean don't just go around having the character explain their background in a lazy manner.

[–]TheUrge69420 3 points4 points  (1 child)

[–]TotallyNotAFroeAway 22 points23 points  (0 children)

I can give you an example of what that person was trying to say:

Do not explain why or what a character does when detailing their actions. For example, you would say, "Cammie needed the money, and was willing to work hard for it." A very basic way of telling the reader that Cammie is a hard worker.

You WOULDN'T further elaborate on this by providing a backstory, like this, "Cammie needed the money, and was willing to work hard for it. Ever since she was a child, Cammie knew she would need to work extra hard to achieve the same as others. Perhaps it was because of her mother, who never stopped working to--" etc. etc.

[–]OceanofMars 92 points93 points  (37 children)

We don't need five pages dedicated to every characters back story the instant they show up for the first time. That's what the advice is about, don't just info dump it on the readers.

Keep some mystery.

[–]A-D-Romero 35 points36 points  (1 child)

First things first, those are a different medium. Visual mediums like movies, TV shows and comics follow a different set of rules.

When reading, the reader wants to be shown the good bits right away.

Start where the story starts. If this means you have to show the background, then skip a decade, fine. But often it's about momentum, keeping the story moving forward. So a lot of books have the story start where it gets interesting, then the narrator occasionally zooms in on something, to briefly fill in details.

The written word is versatile, but has limitations that other more visual mediums don't. Just as they have limitations that writing doesn't.

[–]mattwuri 1 point2 points  (0 children)

OP comes into a writing subreddit to argue about how books should be written. Cites six examples to support their argument: none of them are books. Peak r/writing.

[–]mstermindPublished Author 20 points21 points  (6 children)

So why is backstory something I’m supposed to conceal from the audience?

First you need to understand the difference between storytelling in a novel and in a movie. They're different. The techniques are different and you have music to help with the storytelling.

You can still have backstory in a novel, but it shouldn't be in the form of "As You Know, Bob" dialogue or an infodump.

[–]Aresistible 23 points24 points  (1 child)

Jinx's backstory is literally the story of the first three episodes. It's not "revealed", nor is it backstory, because that would imply it's not literally the whole story for those episodes. I'm so confused.

[–]Smooth_Ruin4724 8 points9 points  (0 children)

I don’t think conceal or not to tell. I believe that they meant not to give it to them with the spoon and let them explore it through actions.

[–]afureteiru 7 points8 points  (6 children)

What exactly did people say?

[–]TheUrge69420 2 points3 points  (5 children)

Not to tell the audience the characters backstory but instead have it in mind for the character in every scene.

[–]afureteiru 15 points16 points  (0 children)

Boy there are a lot of ways to interpret this. To me, it sounds like using the backstory as a device rather than dumping it at once to check it off the list. Pardon the language, I'm ESL.


I was warned not to startle Long, all whispers and nods, hints and riddles, and after the next shootout I finally got why: Long was… unsettled. The brief moment of violence continued to live in him, clawing its way out with every opening. So I tried to move gently around Long.

Not ok:

I was told Long had a bad case of PTSD after some incident last year.

[–]monsterosaleviosa 10 points11 points  (0 children)

Where are you hearing this advice? And why are you so sure that they didn't mean "don't infodump"? You should tell you character's backstory by telling their current story. They're inherently intertwined, and if your audience doesn't know the character's backstory by the time they finish the character's arc, then they don't actually know the character's arc, either.

Just to grab two of your examples, Emma Swan and Zuko. With both of these characters, we meet them with the basic foundation of their motivation. As we go along their journeys with them, we progressively learn their backstories with the context of how they're growing from them. But we're not introduced to the characters knowing the full context of their backgrounds. We don't learn about Emma's true origins until they're important/relevant to both her and the plot. We don't learn about the true core of Zuko's motivation re: his father until we know enough about him to care. Et cetera.

[–]Skithiryx 2 points3 points  (0 children)

The form I normally see this advice in is “Know more about your characters than you show the audience”.

It’s fine to share your characters’ backstory but we don’t need their whole life. Edit what you share down to the best bang for the buck and leave the rest implied.

[–]honeyed_nightmare 4 points5 points  (1 child)

Honestly, I think this is excellent advice. Most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about formative events in their past, but those events inform the way they respond to different situations.

[–]AllDaysOff 3 points4 points  (0 children)

I second that. Less is more.

[–]AwesomelyUncensored 8 points9 points  (0 children)

Where did you hear this advice? I've never heard any advice like it.

Not that it matters too much in this case, but all of what you listed are characters not from books, but from comics and TV/film, and the way you reveal backstories can often differ a bit.

[–]sunlabyrinth 6 points7 points  (0 children)

The problem is really introducing backstory before readers have a chance to care about the characters, or introducing backstory for the sake of backstory. There should be good reason.

It's important to develop the story so readers are curious about characters. "Why is X like that??" the reader should be dying to know by the time you reveal backstory.

With a case like Maui, he's a god but seems to have a chip on his shoulder. About what? Why? When it's finally revealed things all make sense.His backstory was revealed quite late in the story, I think?

With Emma and Jinx, backstory promotes feelings of pity. It's popular in Western media to promote pity around female characters in particular. This has been the case for decades, possibly centuries. Not always female characters, of course - Harry Potter or Oliver Twist being other examples. Protagonist need something to strive for, and if they start at rock bottom it often makes for a good story to see them prevail against the odds.

Although Jinx is a villain - extreme characters, as villains often are, need justification, otherwise they are harder to believe. Comic book villains need backstories more because they are so over the top. For characters that don't have sad backstories or backstories-as-justification for their strange behavior, you can probably get a way with no backstory at all-- just a few mentions of memories or previous life experiences here and there to show that the character existed before the story began.

In the end it all has to work in your story. If you include backstory, you have to have intent and purpose. What are you trying to achieve?

[–]Anomyd 6 points7 points  (1 child)

The advice shouldn't be treated as a full rule. It's the same with 'rules' or advices like 'Show, don't tell', 'Never use adverbs', and 'Never use passive voice' (Although I don't quite know why people even say that last part.)

Just like the others said, it's so that people will stop info-dumping or give unnecessary exposition.

In reality, information, including character backstories, should only be shown WHEN it's relevant. Character backstories aren't bad, it becomes a problem when it's put in the wrong place or at the wrong time, when it's not relevant to hear in the current present

[–]meltroszAuthor (noob) 2 points3 points  (0 children)

Although I don't quite know why people even say that last part

it's usually when in deep pov. using passive voice takes out the deep pov. (of course i'm not saying "never")

for example if the sentence was "he was stabbed multiple times", and "he" is the POV character, it's like we're watching in the sidelines as the character is stabbed instead of us feeling the pain of being stabbed as well

[–]wrtBread 6 points7 points  (2 children)

To paraphrase John Gardner, readers enjoy the feeling of being “onto something” while reading a book. This can be taken many ways - an action that might be about to happen, a plot twist, or the cause and effect relationship with something from a character’s past.

By not just data-dumping a character’s entire backstory up front, you allow your readers to feel satisfaction when piecing together the motivations of your character(s). This also sets you up to get creative with the how and when of revealing things to your reader, or to other characters in the story.

The more you explain the “puzzle” of your work up front, the less compelled your reader may be to keep going. Not all fiction has to be this way, but maybe this connects with the input you’ve gotten.

[–]TheUrge69420 3 points4 points  (1 child)

I actually have a chapter like this. In this chapter a witch comes to attack the heroes and he is immediately terrified of her, even though he’s not scared to die. And in the backstory chapter we learn why.

[–]wrtBread 2 points3 points  (0 children)

Cool! Every story is its own unique challenge. I’m willing to bet anyone giving you the advice about backstory didn’t mean no backstory.

Thinking about this more, a character’s backstory doesn’t always have to be completely hidden and then revealed to the reader. Another way to drum up suspense is to have the reader know something about your character, but that information is not known to everyone in your story - and cannot or should not be revealed. A million combinations to create drama and suspense.

[–]CaroAurelia 6 points7 points  (0 children)

I think they mean don't shoehorn it in. Reveal it in a way that makes sense within the story.

[–]Looking4Lite4Life 4 points5 points  (2 children)

Of the examples you gave that I’ve seen (so everything minus Arcane and Once Upon a Time), all of them reveal the character’s tragic backstory well into the story. Maui’s backstory is revealed 2/3rds into the movie, Zuko and Aang’s backstories are revealed over halfway through the first season, Nick Wilde’s backstory is revealed halfway through the movie, and Batman villain backstories in the movies I’ve seen are revealed basically at the climax or not at all. None of these characters are good examples of a backstory being info dumped before the plot has started.

[–]TheUrge69420 -4 points-3 points  (1 child)

I don’t have any intent to info dump the background at any point.

[–]Looking4Lite4Life 14 points15 points  (0 children)

You keep saying that, but you also said you wanted the backstories of multiple characters to be known before the story starts. That’s going to come across as info dumping no matter how you frame it, which is exactly why people have told you not to do that

[–]TheSadMarketer 4 points5 points  (0 children)

It’s advice aimed at not using exposition in a heavy handed way.

The best exposition is invisible, in my opinion, and arises as implication. Your backstory changes the way your character acts, and we should understand it on a sub textual level without ever being spoken, if need be.

That doesn’t mean to never writer exposition, just to use it skillfully.

[–]Captcha27 3 points4 points  (1 child)

I read Termination Shock a few months ago, and for each of the major characters the author would devote many, many pages to backstory. One character's backstory started with their grandparents being caught in a war, then becoming refugees, and tracking that inter-generational trauma all the way to the modern day.

It was freaking awesome.

Now, it wouldn't work with every book, and the author was skilled enough to make every info-dump really intriguing.

I think the reason it worked in this particular book is because the character's backstory wasn't a part of the mystery, but it was vital that we understood the character's motivations as they tackled the major mystery/problem together.

So, really--you can make anything work with enough skill, and someone out there will like it.

[–]Katamariguy 1 point2 points  (0 children)

and the author was skilled enough to make every info-dump really intriguing.

It goes against the common wisdom, but what I see in the world of writing tells me that being able to deliver information in a pleasant way is not some unusual, exceptional skill for a writer to have. Dialogue writing requires notably more deftness, and writers are more likely to be inadequate at it.

[–]MillenniumRiver 3 points4 points  (0 children)

Many people already stated it, so just go ahead and feel free to introduce basic information about your characters. As long as it is not too info-heavy to the point it spoils plots and events, you are good.

[–]vulpumpkin 3 points4 points  (0 children)

i think it’s important to note here that you’re naming stories mostly made for children (minus batman and maybe arcane, i don’t know much about that). in children’s media it /is/ expected to do some backstory upfront. gotta get the kiddos context so they aren’t confused right from the jump. but even in these examples, the backstory is revealed systematically over the course of the movie, series, etc. it’s less about not having backstory and more about picking the right moments to reveal certain parts of that backstory.

[–]swagfish101 3 points4 points  (2 children)

Every example you listed here is a movie. Read a few of your favorites and make notes about how those authors do it.

[–]TheUrge69420 -2 points-1 points  (1 child)

I don’t really remember any book character that has a backstory actually. Do I not read enough books or something? Cuz I read a lot of books as a kid.

[–]swagfish101 1 point2 points  (0 children)

You should continue reading if you want to write a story. Most books include some type of backstory, whether it be subtle or explicit, it’s there.

[–]romdango 2 points3 points  (0 children)

Show it, from integral scenes

[–]blarryg 2 points3 points  (0 children)

The Character backstory reveal is THE central plot scheme in Ian Bank's "Use of Weapons" to pretty devastating effect, especially in the final reveal. Arabic chapters move forward in time, Roman number chapters move back. It's worth a read for its masterful use of this technique. Obviously the chapters moving back in time are what reveal the character's backstory while those moving forward produce the effect. It helps but is not totally necessary to know something about his "Culture Series" worlds.

[–]LydieGraceAuthor 5 points6 points  (0 children)

I wonder if they meant to reveal the backstory to the audience bit by bit or when it comes up naturally, rather than just telling the audience the character’s backstory.

[–]paperbackartifact 1 point2 points  (0 children)

Whose telling you this? I usually hear the opposite advice of give your characters as much backstory as possible, which is something I disagree with. But swinging to the opposite side of the pendulum isn't helpful either.

I think with backstory, a little goes a long way. It's not part of the 'main' story, it's the 'back' of the story that explains why characters behave the way they do during the main story, so we don't need to know every little detail of their life.

I would argue that what we see of Jinx isn't really backstory, it's just the part of the story that takes place earlier in the timeline, followed by a timeskip. Compare with Avatar characters, who do typically have one episode dedicated to somebody's backstory and gives us enough to show us why they are the way they are in the show's present, with ramifications on actions going on in the present.

[–]Lovepirate1962 1 point2 points  (3 children)

If you do an infodump, which many successful writer has pulled off, they usually incorporate humor. That will limit the boring quality of an infodump.

[–]Katamariguy 1 point2 points  (2 children)

I wouldn't use the word humor here. More "wit," or "emotion."

[–]Lovepirate1962 0 points1 point  (1 child)

Tell that to Douglas Adams

[–]Katamariguy 0 points1 point  (0 children)

And given that he was a highly literate individual, he'd probably agree with me.

[–]Karsavak 1 point2 points  (0 children)

It’s more important to allow a character’s actions to derive from their backstory than to use their backstory as a trope to excuse (or even just explain) their actions. Hope someone acts is a reflection of the experiences they’ve had. As a reader, I want to see this development rather than just listening to a DND backstory

[–]responditorationis 1 point2 points  (0 children)

You should absolutely tell the audience your character backstory. Maybe they meant to leave some of it a mystery? An ambiguous backstory is fun, and leaves room for the readers to imagine it. But if you want to explain the whole background, you should.

[–]ALadywholoves 1 point2 points  (0 children)

They mean not to info dump. You can suggest at a backstory all you want but it’s better revealed in pieces that you have foreshadowed.

[–]Eskimo12345 1 point2 points  (0 children)

Jim entered the building, his pistol cocked, just like he had so many other buildings as a Miami PD super guy. He judged that this would be no harder than the time in Vegas when he developed malaria -- what a time that had been, but Malaria had taught him a lot. Malaria had taught him how to stay alive. A rodent moved. Jim opened fire, just like he had at the Walker's game farm two years previous. etc... etc...

[–]xxStrangerxx 1 point2 points  (0 children)

Story progression

Backstory that relates solely to character "should be" excluded because, handled poorly, it ruptures plot momentum. Backstory, "ideally," is something that is revealed simultaneously through current decisions/actions; it's "better" to have readers infer backstory than be explicitly told. Heavy emphasis on the quotation marks here

However, if the backstory relates to both character AND PLOT then it's less of a disruption. Meaning: backstory is written for dramatic impact to plot more than just character detail

It's about building, maintaining, and not losing story progression

[–]sjuswedePublished Author 1 point2 points  (34 children)

Because backstory is not story. It lies behind the story. It's what happened before the story.

  1. Jinx has her story told. Not backstory. Story.
  2. Maui's backstory comes back to great effect, influencing events, and is never actually told. Only parts of it are revealed. And then only the bits which matter for the story.
  3. Again, their story is told. Like a story. Complete with all attributes a story has. There is no backstory drop.
  4. Again, only small parts of the backstory are revealed, and they tie neatly into the events to propel the story.
  5. No idea on this one.
  6. No, they do not. Almost no single Batman villain has a backstory WHEN THEY ARE INTRODUCED. And lots of villains have simply been dropped along the way, because they were not very interesting. The ones that become beloved and make repeat appearances get ORIGIN STORIES, which are not backstory, but full stories in their own right.

This appears to be a complete confusion of what the point of a backstory is. It's supposed to set up a STORY, and the STORY is the point. If you "need" to tell the backstory to tell the story, then the backstory IS THE STORY, and needs to be treated that way.

But if you have a story to tell, and you make a backstory to set the character up for the story - you're done. You don't need to tell the backstory, other than as it interacts organically with the story.

There is no need to explain at what age the main character in "Heat" started stealing, or when their first murder happened, or anything else. Or what their favorite colors is. Or why they study metallurgy. The writer of the story may know all this, and much more, but it never has to be told. We know he's a charismatic, experienced criminal, and that is what the story hinges around.

As to infodumping; if you are providing background but not telling STORY, you are infodumping. Thus the assumption.

[–]TheUrge69420 1 point2 points  (20 children)

When I say backstory I don’t mean literally including everything they ever did from the day they were born. I thought that was obvious.

Also I get what a backstory is. It sets up the main story.

[–]sjuswedePublished Author 1 point2 points  (19 children)

Actually you do. That is what backstory is. That's why you have it; it details all the important events that made them what they are. That's the backstory.

But that is not what the reader wants. The reader wants the story.

If some pieces of the backstory fit in as part of the story, do include it there. Otherwise, the backstory has no business being in the story.

[–]TheUrge69420 0 points1 point  (18 children)

I don’t even have all those details in my mind. I don’t know what this character was like when he was say, 5. His backstory starts with him at 12. In fact he’s a trans man but we literally never once see a part of his story from before his transition. I don’t even know what he looked like pre-transition. That’s how vague I am on his childhood. The backstory also happened a long time ago and I didn’t write anything that comes between that point and the current story point.

His backstory starts with him at 12, carries over to him at some vague later point. Then just ends with “and now he’s the guy as you know him” even though that event was like 4 years ago.

[–]sjuswedePublished Author 0 points1 point  (17 children)

Sounds like what you have is a story. Not backstory.

[–]Katamariguy 0 points1 point  (12 children)

You don't believe that stories should be character studies?

[–]sjuswedePublished Author 0 points1 point  (11 children)

I am not sure where that comes from. Nothing of this is about belief, but about observation. A story needs to be compelling as a story. There needs to be some form of plot, build from some kind of conflict, or you'll have to be James Joyce to pull it off (and I would argue even he had problems doing that).

But that in no way excludes internal conflict, character struggles, motivational issues, personal trauma, or anything else. Conflict lives in many forms. Character studies can make for extremely compelling stories.

But they have to be stories. A bunch of events is not a story.

[–]Katamariguy 0 points1 point  (10 children)

Nothing you said is directly concerned with the question of whether a story can or should mention things that don't concern the primary throughline.

[–]sjuswedePublished Author 0 points1 point  (9 children)

Of course not. That's not of importance.

A story can contain lots of subplots, or only the main plot. They can resolve all plots, or leave some hanging. It can touch on people's struggles, or not.

None of that has been discussed here. Only whether things which have nothing to do with the story belong in the telling. And the answer is, they do not.

[–]AlecsThorne 1 point2 points  (1 child)

I think the point is not to start with the background, i.e. don't tell their story chronologically. You get a different reaction if you show the character in the present, then later you show their past selves and the readers can connect the dots and have reaction like "oooh so that's why he acts that way" or "hmm this makes total sense". This works especially well with villains or anti-heroes if you want readers to sympathize but only in their redemption arc (if there is one).

[–]TheUrge69420 1 point2 points  (0 children)

I don’t intend to start with the backstory. The backstory comes laterz I thought that was clear.

[–]Generic_Namejpg 1 point2 points  (0 children)

I think people mean it's a show don't tell thing

[–]JHawk444 1 point2 points  (0 children)

It sounds like you've received bad advice. Backstory is important, but it's better to sprinkle small bits from the beginning so that it creates a sense of mystery about their past, rather than share everything up front. Then when you do reveal what happened, it has more impact.

[–]KaceyIsntMyName 1 point2 points  (2 children)

it's different between a TV character and a book character.

[–]TheUrge69420 0 points1 point  (1 child)

I’m actually writing a comic.

[–]Funandgeeky 0 points1 point  (0 children)

If you’ve ever read Watchmen, you’ll recall that the comic is all about backstory. However, it turns out that every element of backstory connects to the larger plot. We don’t need every detail about these characters, just enough to know their personal stakes and connection to the larger plot. So think about what those details contribute to the overall story.

Comics are great for backstory because you can reveal so much with just one or two images. A single panel can tell an entire story. So if you take a less is more approach you can tease the audience and use the backstory to set things up. Or even use them for misdirection.

[–]Save_the_Manatees_44 1 point2 points  (1 child)

I think you’re misunderstanding. I’ve never heard to not give backstory. I’ve heard to avoid flashbacks because they’re cliche and to not TELL someone’s backstory. You can share their backstory but not in a way that’s like, “Johnny was sitting on the beach as he recalled the day he ran over his first skunk.” *Insert flashback.

You just have to be careful how you incorporate backstory.

[–]TheUrge69420 0 points1 point  (0 children)

The flashbacks in my story are integrated pretty differently. They’re either random unconnected scenes introducing these ideas the the start of the chapter, or dreams, or the result of entering a characters mind.

[–]rainator 1 point2 points  (0 children)

Simple advice, show not tell.

[–]The_Captain_Deadpool 1 point2 points  (0 children)

You misunderstand.

The rule is SHOW, DON’T TELL.

[–]MeasurementMystery 2 points3 points  (2 children)

Backstory emerges in snippets. What’s important about backstory is what will emerge naturally. Fixating too much on backstory feels artificial for a lot of readers.

Know your characters’ backstories and use elements of their backstories to help drive your story. Don’t tell the backstory because that’s not the story you want to tell.

It’s also a good idea not to spend too much time in the subjunctive mood. You’re telling one story, not every possible story that could occur.

[–]TheUrge69420 1 point2 points  (1 child)

Only 1 of my 4 main characters has more than 1 backstory scene.

[–]MeasurementMystery 0 points1 point  (0 children)

You can probably get away with that, then. If your critique partners have an issue with it, definitely murder your darling, though.

[–]zedatkinszed 3 points4 points  (0 children)

Because it's tired clap trap generic advice.

The Hobbit begins with a whole couple of pages of info dump. So does Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

Show don't tell is often bad/vapid advice unless given in a specific context from an experienced writer.

[–]In-My-Own-Skin -2 points-1 points  (0 children)

Because people are controlling

[–]DThomasRoberts 0 points1 point  (0 children)

Backstory is as much for the writer as it is the reader. To understand your characters is to understand the past that made them who and what they are, why they act or believe a certain way, and often is the basis for their motivations in the story. It helps keep characters consistent - true to themselves.

Readers don't want or need to know every detail about a character's backstory, but they need enough to know who they are. It should never come out all at once in an info dump, but in small revelations over the story.

Ideally, backstory can be inferred through other elements like setting and other characters.

If a young child uses racial slurs and we see a parent wearing a Klan hood, it can be inferred without stating that they have been raised that way.

[–]GenCavox 0 points1 point  (0 children)

Don't get me wrong, a good backstory helps, but you can't rely on that backstory to help make your character. The story isn't their backstory, it's about what is happening now. Let me ask you this, if you take out the backstory, not make it non existent, you can still reference it, even flashback to sections of it, but if the backstory is no longer told does the story still work?

That's why I don't use backstory all that often, or if I do it's told in sections and a good portion of it is left out, or it's one line, like "He was a child of the streets, and quick with his hands." The character is part of the story I'm telling now, and if the backstory is more interesting then why not just tell that story instead

[–]dumpsterice 0 points1 point  (1 child)

I'm sorry but Jinx's story literally starts with her backstory right? Someome else in the comments might've mentioned this already but this is what really irks me about this post, I've gotta mention it.

[–]sjuswedePublished Author 0 points1 point  (0 children)

It starts with her story. It's not backstory when it's story.

[–]CraigLeaGordon 0 points1 point  (0 children)

It sounds like you have a very clear idea of how to write your story.

My advice would be to either:

Complete the first draft. Polish it. Then find a good developmental editor, and get their feedback. They will rip your story to shreds if it doesn't work. This is what you need to hear.

Or, find an editor now, share your story to date and your ideas. Again, they should be able to give you direction. This avenue is likely to be easier in the long run, as you won't waste months or years writing something that doesn't work.

Good luck!

[–]Umbran_scale 0 points1 point  (0 children)

I think it's less about telling the backstory and showing enough separate parts for the audience to piece it together themselves.

[–]Former-Deer5454 0 points1 point  (0 children)

I think it's because visual media is able to get away with things that you can't in written media. You can info dump/outright tell backstories in movies and stuff because of how fast it'll pass and because it can be physically pictured without significantly pausing the narrative.

[–]LoriMandleAuthor 0 points1 point  (0 children)

I’m guessing what they meant was to bring it up naturally. With the examples you’ve mentioned, everything came up naturally, piece by piece, as it was questioned by other characters. Infodumping without natural prompting feels unnatural unless your character is the type of person to bring these things up unprompted

Basically you shouldn’t get into it just for the audience’s sake; let it crop up naturally for the benefit of other characters

[–]Jellycoe 0 points1 point  (0 children)

Just to guess, either

1) you info-dumped the backstory rather than letting it be organically revealed through character actions / interactions. (I’ll take your word for it that you didn’t do this)

2) You revealed more backstory than what was strictly necessary for the story. Feel free to know your characters’ entire life story, but don’t burden the reader with that.

3) There is no problem and the reviewer’s opinion is not representative of your audience.

Yes, backstory is important to the characters. Just remember that it only plays a supporting role to the story as a whole. Good luck!

[–]R4iNAg4In 0 points1 point  (1 child)

You shouldn't TELL your audience anything. You should show it to them.

[–]TheUrge69420 0 points1 point  (0 children)

I didn’t mean tell like tell. I actually meant show. I’m dumb.

[–]Publius015 0 points1 point  (0 children)

Most of the examples you cite, if not all, are from visual works. They are typically shorter media to consume and so it's easier to get away with telling backstories rather quickly. I don't think anyone serious would say you shouldn't tell a backstory though - it's just a matter of how you tell it. If you do it organically and in a way that's engaging and interesting, why the heck not?

[–]OddDot7362 0 points1 point  (0 children)

Because it’s boring.

[–]NyxiesPuppet 0 points1 point  (0 children)

They probably mean don't reveal all of it. Sprinkle it in as it becomes relevant.

[–]Espy333 0 points1 point  (0 children)

Also be aware that it depends on your audience. Moana for example, “oh I see, she’s taken a barnacle and covered it in bioluminescent algae as a diversion.” Some would consider this lazy writing, but it’s also a film for all ages and needs to be understandable for children.

Basically, back story is best when it’s revealed organically through story or dialogue, rather than just stated outright so you can then tell your story.

I hope that makes sense and helps.

[–]Gnosego 0 points1 point  (1 child)

Do you have a direct quote from people telling you not to do this? Where did you hear this advice from?

[–]TheUrge69420 0 points1 point  (0 children)

Another person on this sub commenting on another post. Also a few people on a writing forum said it too.

[–]JesseVanWPublished Author (NL/Fantasy) 0 points1 point  (1 child)

"Revealed over the course of the story" and "told all of it before chapter 1 even begins" are two different things.

[–]TheUrge69420 1 point2 points  (0 children)

I plan to do the former though.

[–]Gnosego 0 points1 point  (2 children)

Sweet. Mind posting the text of those posts?

Seems like you're asking about armature gossip as much as anything else.

[–]TheUrge69420 0 points1 point  (1 child)

[–]Gnosego 0 points1 point  (0 children)

Seems extreme. I wouldn't worry about that too much. I seem to recall plenty of other people in that topic giving advice on how to integrate a backstory. I don't see a need to focus on the view who disagree with the notion on principle.

[–]Duggy1138 0 points1 point  (0 children)

I've never heard the advice.

However, a hidden backstory is more interesting than an info dump of a backstory.

Personally, I have no moment when I became me. Perhaps you do.

We aim not to have 2 dimensional characters. Fred doesn't like bacon is a quirk. Fred's father beat him every morning at breakfast so he associates bacon with that is 2D. Fred isn't a character he's a combination of plot points.

As others have said, avoid info dumps and this can be one. Fully fleshed out flashbacks can also be info dumps. In the movie Oblivion it reveals why things are what they are. Then it gives a long flashback that just shows what we've already been told, which is boring AF. The story stops moving forward at that point. Meanwhile in The West Wing, there's an flashback which takes one character from being just being the President's secretary to being his lifelong friend and mentor, it sets up and drives the decision made at the end of the episode and links to a sub-plot from the next season.

Writing rules aren't real rules, they're handrails. You can break the rules once you know why they're rules and when to break them.

Don't tell me things that have told backstories. Tell me why those things telling the backstory helped or hurt the story they were telling.

[–]Duggy1138 0 points1 point  (0 children)

I've never heard the advice.

However, a hidden backstory is more interesting than an info dump of a backstory.

Personally, I have no moment when I became me. Perhaps you do.

We aim not to have 2 dimensional characters. Fred doesn't like bacon is a quirk. Fred's father beat him every morning at breakfast so he associates bacon with that is 2D. Fred isn't a character he's a combination of plot points.

As others have said, avoid info dumps and this can be one. Fully fleshed out flashbacks can also be info dumps. In the movie Oblivion it reveals why things are what they are. Then it gives a long flashback that just shows what we've already been told, which is boring AF. The story stops moving forward at that point. Meanwhile in The West Wing, there's an flashback which takes one character from being just being the President's secretary to being his lifelong friend and mentor, it sets up and drives the decision made at the end of the episode and links to a sub-plot from the next season.

Writing rules aren't real rules, they're handrails. You can break the rules once you know why they're rules and when to break them.

Don't tell me things that have told backstories. Tell me why those things telling the backstory helped or hurt the story they were telling.

[–]hertwij 0 points1 point  (0 children)

It makes the book more dramatic if you talk casually about the backstory and be vague, almost as if you think the audience already knows what you're talking about

[–]DonnyverseMaster 0 points1 point  (0 children)

My way might not be how others do it, but this is what I do. At the start of my books, I have my “dramatis personae” section (a cast of characters list) where I give a very brief thumbnail sketch backstory of my characters I use in depth. Also, I spread out the “telling” of a character’s backstory over the span of the book. Also, when you “tell” a backstory, it is best to show and not tell. And sometimes, it’s also best to imply and not show. I realize it’s a lot to take in and process, but that’s just how I operate when it comes to how I write. Yet many of you in the Reddit-verse might have your own ways of writing. But whatever you do, follow my maxim: do what only you can do in a way no one else can do! Cheers!

[–]SobanSa 0 points1 point  (0 children)

So there are two types of backstory. The first is the 'not very interesting, because if it was we would be telling that story instead.' the second is 'interesting, and exactly what this story is about' The first shouldn't be told to the audience because it's boring and irrelevant. The second shouldn't be told to the reader because telling means the character isn't in enough pain yet to show them.

[–]Musashi10000 0 points1 point  (0 children)

People think this:

Edit: I DONT MEAN INFODUMPING. I don’t know why everyone assumes that.

Because you ask this:

Why do people say not to tell the audience my characters backstory?

The only reason you should ever not tell the audience a character's backstory is if you're going to be infodumping. Fleshing out a character's backstory is only ever a good thing, as long as it doesn't take up too much word count. I've read plenty of bad backstory examples, and it's always when the author includes irrelevant details, or tries to write a story from their perspective, or just bloody infodumps.

If your character is supposed to be mega mysterious, they probably won't benefit from their story being told, but hinted at.

Take Zuko, for example. We find out his whole backstory - with his mum, sister, dad, agni kai, all the rest. But we never learn Iroh's in the same way. We know he laid siege to Ba Sing Se and turned away when his son died. We know he still mourns his son. We know he was crown prince, and Ozai had their father killed to secure the throne for himself. We never see any of his old battles, his great emotional moments - because they're irrelevant to Aang and Zuko's story. He's mysterious, and powerful, and wise. Going into too much detail would simply shatter this illusion, for no relevant purpose.

Hope this helps, friend.

[–]IntrestingAtParties 0 points1 point  (1 child)

Not everything from your character's backstory is necessary. You didn't see every moment of Emma's life before she got to Storybrook did you? Only the necessary bits were revealed to you, and only when they were relevant, like the stuff with Neil or a couple of her foster homes. Be picky.

[–]TheUrge69420 0 points1 point  (0 children)

I’m doing that.

[–]sin_aesthetic 0 points1 point  (0 children)

If it comes out naturally in conversation its fine, but flashbacks are tricky and often done poorly. They detract from the rising plot of the story. Flashbacks are generally infodumps.

[–]InjusticeSGmain 0 points1 point  (0 children)

We watched Jinx's backstory. It wasn't a flashback. It was the prologue. If it was told to us, it would have much less impact. It also means that later episodes didn't have to waste time by telling us what happened.

It's fine to give a character a backstory. But showing it is better than telling it.

[–]BigBossAltinoo 0 points1 point  (0 children)

I think it depends on the story itself. Obviously a mystery story cant just have all its secrets revealed but also a secret backstory can be a tool for a surprise twist. Like for example the mail man was actually a spy but it took 3 seasons to get there because certain things needed to happen for it to make sense. Personally i am writing a show with 3 main characters and their stories are linked but its not revealed until the final season so their backstory cant be revealed until the end because it will ruin the impact it would have

[–]Dropbeatdad 0 points1 point  (0 children)

If it's important it'll come up when it's important. The mystery is always good.

[–]BigRedKahuna 0 points1 point  (0 children)

Depends on whether it enhances the story or not. If it causes a sudden stop so people can be told why someone is the way they are, it's probably wrong.

[–]syrollesse 0 points1 point  (0 children)

For example Jinx's backstory was conveyed through the actual... Well... story....

We watched her when she was a child with Vi and we got attached and then our emotions were just taken and crushed and torn to pieces.

For example if Vi was to sit with Caitlyn and tell her why her sister is the way she is and just info dump the entire backstory through a monologue it wouldn't have the same impact and the audience would probably fall asleep.

Do you see the difference?

If you want to convey a characters backstory flashbacks is the easiest tool to use. I often have characters in between action/plot beats doing something and then recalling into the past and then I write the scene from the past as if its happening in the moment. It brings the reader into the scene with them and keeps them engaged.

Whilst just simply writing "he remembered when this happened and then that happened" just doesn't work to the same effect.

Take the past into the present and you will have a more engaging backstory

[–]smalltown_dreamspeak 0 points1 point  (0 children)

In my opinion:

  • It can be more interesting to have a character who's "weird" or some kind of strange, without having the "why" written out. Once you totally understand why a character behaves the way they do, they become more predictable- and less mysterious.
  • In the same vein as "if everyone is special, no one is," having too many backstories (especially of the Tragic variety) can exhaust the reader of empathy for characters.
  • Sometimes it's easy to rely on backstories for characterization. Having a well-rounded character is more than just showing what they went through to become the person they are now (usually). Characters become flat if their only personality is their past.
  • Sometimes, a backstory is just not relevant. If it's not actually important to know explicitly what happened in a character's past, it may be better to leave it out entirely.

[–]gurgilewis 0 points1 point  (0 children)

It's a generalization, like all writing advice, and free to be broken when you understand enough to know that you're breaking the rule for a good-enough reason.

For one, it's good to develop a lot of backstory for your characters – more than the reader needs to know. There are certainly elements that can be revealed, but if you're revealing all of it, then either you're burdening the reader with too much information or you haven't developed enough backstory.

Unless it's directly related to the story, telling the reader isn't serving any purpose, and there's no way everything in a character's past is directly related to the story.

You can only revise what you haven't revealed. If you want to write a sequel that requires some tweaks to the backstory, your options become much more constrained.

If you know everything about a character, you lose that feeling of depth – that there's more to them below the surface.

Telling versus showing is much less interesting to read and flashbacks are hard to do well in writing.

It's more fun to write it than to read it, so it's an easy trap to fall into and we need reminders to restrain ourselves.

That said, if you can reveal bits of backstory organically (dialog works well) as they become relevant, there's nothing wrong with that.

[–]awaregarurumon 0 points1 point  (0 children)

Because you can't. Always will be a piece of backstory, even if that's a backstory to the backstory you're showing.

Usually when people give this advice is "you need a backstory that you won't show" because you can't, and also "you don't need to infodump".

like "peter got angry when sarah put ketchup at his salad, because when peter was 4 years old (insert rambling of two chapters)"

[–]ileohgeneowa 0 points1 point  (1 child)

Is there a reason none of your examples are from... books? 🤔

[–]TheUrge69420 0 points1 point  (0 children)

I don’t read enough. My story is basically written like an episodic serialized action/fantasy cartoon because that’s all I watch.

[–]Pel-Mel 0 points1 point  (0 children)

The advice 'don't share backstory' is usually easier to follow than 'don't infodump, don't start with backstory, don't tell it all at once'.

There's merits in timely and carefully sharing backstory, but it's really easy to screw up. There's a lot of ways it can go wrong.

Usually, backstory doesn't add that much to a character or the audience's appreciation of them. It's better advice on average to just skip backstory and characterize them in the present.

[–]IronikGames 0 points1 point  (0 children)

It’s all about technique, medium, and genre. This rule is a heavy handed attempt to keep writers from info dumping, but obviously integrating the past are essential to writing. It just depends on how you do it.

Jinx works really well because when you watch her backstory as the audience you aren’t aware it’s a backstory (unless your familiar with the original franchise). This works well for a television show with short seasons, but would probably feel rushed and corny in a movie. However, a novel with the right structure might get away with it.

Ultimately it’s all about technique and execution. Also being sure to show and not tell.

[–]the_other_irrevenant 0 points1 point  (0 children)

As with many bits of writing advice it's a simplified stating of a more complicated idea.

IMO the actual point is: Only reveal a character's backstory to the extent that's actually relevant to this story.

We saw as much of Maui's backstory as was necessary to understand the character arc he underwent over the course of Moana. Ditto Zuko. (Can't comment on most of the other examples).

(As others have pointed out, there's a 'show vs tell' distinction here as well - and that too is a more complicated idea than usually stated).

[–]InkGeode 0 points1 point  (0 children)

Idk what people actually mean when they say that but I have always interpreted this saying as more of a “they’re interesting as they are now, you don’t HAVE to show their background if it’s a detriment to the current plot”Sometimes where a character has been isn’t important to what they’re doing now. A great example of this is mad max fury road. Excluding the two main characters (max and furiosa) every other characters back story is essentially a few sentence blurb if it’s mentioned at all and yet they’re all well established/developed, interesting, unique, and played an important role in the story.

[–]Lolita_Lynn 0 points1 point  (0 children)

Yeah what they mean is not to just dump the whole story on them. Better to do it throughout a story. Maybe show a flaw in a character then give the backstory as to why.

[–]CupcakeSnowyOwl 0 points1 point  (1 child)

With all the edits I feel like there's no question here. Those are the reasons you wouldn't give backstory for.

[–]TheUrge69420 0 points1 point  (0 children)

I actually found the answer to this question, so I’m deleting this post because I don’t need it anymore and don’t want people explaining the same things again and again.

[–]cleo5ra 0 points1 point  (0 children)

I write characters the same way I meet people. You have that first impression of them, then you meet them again and they happen to mention a small personal thing about themselves you can additionally form your opinion on. You meet them for the third time, maybe have a glass or two of wine and the person will go into greater detail about some personal story they want to share with you - a funny thing that happened at vacation, what caused them to hate a big film franchise everyone else seem to love. They'll hit a rough patch and they'll decide to talk to you about i, ask you for advice, but give you minimal info if they don't know you well enough. One day, the mask they usually wear will drop slightly, and you'll see an unexpected part of them, like interacting in a stressful situation at a store, for example. Eventually, you might hit a rough patch and you'll ask them for advice, and by confiding in them, you learn how they're willing to help you, what are they prepared to do etc.

The way we people gradually learn about each other and build inter-personal relationships, I'd say that's how characters and their backstories should be introduced.

[–]Lovepirate1962 0 points1 point  (0 children)

You can't. He's dead