Home » Writing » What they don’t know won’t kill them!

What they don’t know won’t kill them!

The back story of my characters has been on my mind lately, and obviously on other people’s too, as there have been a couple of great posts about it, for example:

Shehanne Moore has a great post about drip feeding the back story into your book.

Rachel Carrera has an interesting post asking for opinions on how readers enjoy reading back story in books.

Knowing where your characters come from and what they’ve done to become who they are when readers meet them is important.

The way back story is introduced is very individual based on the story and the writer, but it wasn’t the technical aspect of writing back story that had me thinking. Instead, lately I have been mulling over the back story itself.

Have you ever had a piece of back story for your characters pop into your head out of nowhere, that is so random or out of character for them, but you just know that it’s right?

What I mean is, I have a group of characters and for some reason I just have this thought that 2 of these characters got together one night.

For this to happen would be rather out of character for them, but now I’ve thought of it, I can’t un-think it, and it’s stuck as being a part of their back story.

Now, this piece of information isn’t written in my story or even hinted at, and it will never be revealed to readers. It’s just a snippet of info about these characters that I, as the writer, know about them and has shaped the way they are.

It got me thinking about other bits of back story from previous characters that I know as a the writer, but that readers would never know, and how it affects the way that I write these characters.

I wonder how many characters I’ve read about in books who have back story I don’t know about.

It’s interesting to ponder, right? 😀

Do you have any interesting back story about characters that only you know about them, that you haven’t shared with readers or other people? Have you ever imagined your characters doing something really out of character? Do you enjoy creating back story for your characters?

Progress Report:

Word Count: 3049 (39,207 total word count)
Status of fourth manuscript: Writing first draft.

Books read: 1/4

June eBook Review: Review written and ready.

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49 thoughts on “What they don’t know won’t kill them!

  1. This is a really interesting topic! With my current WIP, in one particular scene very early on the main character had a slightly tense conversation with their mother; it wasn’t planned, that’s just how it turned out. Ever since then the strained dynamic between them has developed into a major sub-plot.

    With The Vessel I also had a few bits and bobs in my head about Eva’s backstory before The Breakdown. Most of it didn’t make it into the book for the sake of pacing but it helped me connect with her more as a writer. Great post 🙂

    • I think, even if the back story doesn’t get used, it does help to write the characters better knowing what has happened in their past.

      It’s interesting how small scenes and snippets can lead into major parts of a story, but then that’s part of the fun of writing 😀

      Thank you for reading and commenting 🙂

  2. Mishka, thank for the heads up! XXXX Your’e a doll. I think it’s very important to have all kinds of things in your character’s backstory only you know about. After all there’ a ton in our own that only e know about! I also think you can well not only keep that biz that seems out of character but drip feed use it too. If it’s out of character how do they feel about it exactly?

    • What a great point and that question really got me thinking! I’m going to have to work out how they feel about it and how it affects the group dynamic. I love adding new levels to characters and their relationships 😀

      Your post was awesome! I really enjoyed it 🙂

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting 🙂

  3. One thing I do to help me drip feed is work up a character profile first. It worked for Brandi in my novel, but not so well for Richard, the main character. A good deal of Brandi’s back story comes out throughout the story, but my husband said Richard, me having made him sort of a loner, did not work for the story. He has no personality, no real past…yet he is doing all this stuff in the present. So I am rewriting his character profile to give him a hangout and some friends. I don’t like info dumps at the beginning of a book. I like to start in the action, but my husband said by doing that, he didn’t have any real connection to Richard before all the action started so he couldn’t wrap his head around this character. Anyway…edits are in progress. Thanks for the timely and provocative post.

    • Your husband makes a very good point 😀 I like to get right into the action too, but if a reader cannot connect with a character because they don’t know them, it makes sense they are going to want a bit more info.

      Thank you for reading and commenting 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the post!

  4. Invisible, character-motivating back story was why I had to remedy a 32,595-square-mile knowledge deficit about Ireland. I now know more about Irish history, culture, geography, wildlife, weather, agriculture, politics, psychology, religion and whatever you’re having yourself, than I ever imagined knowing—and in some cases, more than I wanted to know.

  5. One of my characters has a lot of back story and baggage which is never told in any of the books in that series. But I am going to write a novella about her when book 3 is finished, because I think it would be worth telling. Maybe you could do the same for your characters…

    • I do like when people do tie-in novellas and short stories about characters in books, I like being able to find out more about them 😀

      Thank you for reading and commenting 🙂

  6. I write a page or two of back story for my main characters before I begin a novel. I write about their personality, some experiences they have had, what their parents were/are like, their favorite drink and food, how other people describe them, etc. I also make a playlist for each main character of the kind of music they like to listen to. It helps me get inside their heads and gives me things to refer to as I write, without ever having to explicitly tell them to the reader as facts.

    • It does help to be able to really feel a character, I think doing all the research and character development before hand means you can just go into writing already in the head space of those characters 🙂

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting!

      • It makes such a difference to already be in their heads! In the novel I’m working on, I had been writing all from the primary main character’s pov, and got to a point where it was time to write from the secondary main character’s pov, and I was really struggling with it. So I spent an evening just thinking about her and how she would do this or that and went to sleep telling myself to “dream her.” The next day I was really able to see the story from her perspective!

      • That’s what I do, when I want to write from a certain character’s perspective I try to spend a while going back over their character sheet and knowing who they are 😀

  7. Interesting point, and thanks for pointing us in the direction of other thoughts on the subject. Personally I treat a character’s back story like I treat everything else. I have a clear understanding of what makes them tick and so if I put them in a situation that makes them react, immediately a little snipped with sneak through which tells me why they might behave a certain way. I don’t write it down, but it’s there in my head. Then I decide whether to share this information, or whether I’m just going to use it as a tool to flesh the person out.

    Something else I find interesting, and I’m sure you’ve found this too, is that knowledge has a funny way of coming out whether you intended it or not! You might make a conscious effort to keep it to yourself, and then a few stories down the line (in the case of a sequel) BAM it sneaks in there! I think we’re very good at deciding what works at the time, and we tuck things away until we need them.

    I’ve said before that I’ve learnt from people like you, and Callum or Winter – the planners among us. One of my weaknesses is the fact things often come to me when I’ve already taken a character in a certain direction and not set the groundwork. If I planned better, this could be avoided. Still that’s why we’re here, to learn and share and find the tools that work for us.

    • What a great comment! And you’re so right. When fleshing out a character it is nice to have all those tid-bits of information about them, that is likely to never leave my head 😀 But I know in a couple of my book there has been background info on characters that has still managed to sneak into the story anyway!

      I do like to plan, I think it helps make sure I get down all the information I need, but then sometimes a scene can take on a life of its own and I go so off plot I find it hard to remember where I was going!

      Thank you so much for commenting, some really great thoughts you shared that I can think on 🙂

  8. If my readers really like a character, then I will write a book of short stories dedicated to fill out their past. For example my villain Solomon Pace has two books of short stories about him. Tales of Solomon Pace and The Moonlight Dance.

    • Writing novellas or short stories about other characters in a book seems very popular, and I can understand why. I know there are many characters I’ve read about who I’d love to have their own book dedicated to them and their past 😀

      Thank you for reading and commenting 🙂

  9. Another great post! And you’ve reminded me of an issue with my novel: how much of the back story is necessary to add. I have a secondary character for whom I developed a backs story. I couldn’t fit much of her story into the novel. I didn’t want to go off on a tangent with her story. But it helped me know more about her and what made her sad.

    • It does help, especially with secondary characters, to know their background as well. I read a piece of advice once that said you should treat secondary characters as though they think the story is about themselves. So, it goes to show how important it is to build depth to a character, even if the reader won’t know about it 😀

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting 🙂

  10. I am ALL about the backstories! Just last night, I realized that this fun little tidbit about Jean will probably never come to light, because there’s no character that has any reason to know or mention it. Silly, but it makes me sad 😦

    • It’s not silly, it makes me kinda sad too to know that there is such amazing moments in these characters lives that the reader will never get to find out. But then, that’s part of the privilege of being a writer and getting to create such rich characters! 😀

      Thank you for reading and commenting 🙂

  11. Creating back stories on characters is one thing I enjoy most in writing. I generally do not leave anything out–I really want to reader to know them well so that they understand their motives, thoughts, and actions–good or bad 🙂

  12. I love backstories because you get to know the characters better and you can see how they’ve changed over the course of time (story time that is). However, at the same time, I think a bit of mystery also adds to the enjoyment of the character.

    • You’re exactly right, it’s nice to know where characters have come from, but at the same time you don’t need to know every detail 😀

      Thank you for reading and commenting 🙂

  13. Every char needs a back story. If there is no back story then how do they become interesting on the page? Sometimes it takes us longer to find that story, but their story is what makes them the way they are. I personally need to know that information or I can’t write them. Sometimes, I can write a story, have trouble identifying with a char and realize it’s because I don’t know where he has been. Recently this happened, and it ended up changing the whole stories meaning and purpose.

    • It is interesting, I love coming up with character back stories 😀 But sometimes, like this time, bits and pieces of random info about these character will pop into my head, and it can definitely add a new dynamic to a story!

      Thank you for reading and commenting 🙂

  14. What a great topic. I have a way of dealing with characters back stories. I set a night aside and have a few wines ready and I get a friend to question me about a specific character. Where were they born, how old are they, what is their favorite food and music etc. If I ever get to the point where they ask me a question about my character I don’t know the answer to – I realise I don’t know them well enough to write about them. It really works for a good solid character, even though a lot of the information is never mentioned in the book.

    • What a clever idea! Especially if someone else is asking the questions, because they might think of stuff to ask that you wouldn’t have thought of yourself. I’m definitely going to have to try this out 😀

      Thank you for reading and commenting 🙂

  15. Our writer minds are interesting like that, aren’t they? I have stuff pop up into my head completely out of nowhere at times, having to do with character or description, and things completely different than the direction I was going in.
    I once imagined two characters from two different stories, independent of each other, falling in love. Strange. 🙂

    • It is weird, but also exciting! 😀 Getting to play around with these characters that are your own, and then finding random pieces of information about them. It’s nice to take characters (even from two different pieces of work) and see how they’d interact and what would happen. I’d say that makes for good writing thinking!

      Thank you for reading and commenting 🙂

  16. I do tons of backstory which doesn’t get into my books–at least at the time I come up with it. It’s one of the things that I do when I am stuck on my main story, I look at the story as if one of my minor characters was the main character. Usually this involves figuring out what events led that particular minor character to the place that she or he intersects the main plot.

    I seldom use any of this material, but it can help me figure out what is going to happen next. However, sometimes it does come in useful later on down the road.

    For example, in Cannibal Hearts I came up with some maintenance men with a very unusual background. It didn’t really come up in that book, but it helped me understand why they acted the way that they did. I knew it, but the reader didn’t really need to.

    In Worms Of Heaven, however, one of those characters died, and the other does an impromptu eulogy and talks about their shared history. It ended up being (I think) a very powerful scene and I wouldn’t have thought to write it if I didn’t have that information squirreled away in the back of my head.

    • You’re exactly right, even if the backstory doesn’t come up in the book, simply the fact of having it and knowing it means we can write those characters with so much more depth!

      Thank you for reading and commenting 🙂 It’s really nice to get other people’s views on this!

  17. I’m addicted to making back stories for my characters. I probably spend too much time on the back story and not enough on the actual plot itself…oops. I usually share these back stories with my writing friends, and occasionally I slip in a little sly reference to it in my actual writing. 😉

    • I love creating back stories too. And, hey, it’s all towards creating a better character and therefore a better story, right? 😀

      Thank you for reading and commenting 🙂

    • I do like back stories, even better when sometimes there is a back story that is hinted at and the writer lets the reader fill it in with all kinds of wild ideas 😀

      Thank you for reading and commenting 🙂

  18. Pingback: Posts I loved this week | Taylor Grace

  19. Sometimes real people do out-of-character things, too. So long as you’ve got some sort of justification for it, and can use it to add to your story, anything goes.

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