Ooh, this is a tricky one! It really depends on what angle you’d like to take: is it a triumph or a downfall? A comedy or a tragedy?
Tone is everything when it comes to a backstory. In what way does it create the character you see in the original story?
My current project is a novella called Forgive and Forget. It takes place a couple decades prior to the beginning of the first full-length book in the series. When I was writing the original book, I found myself coming up with at least a little background for the villains. I ended up really enjoying the villains and developed them even further.
For my intermediate fiction writing class, I came up with some characters that existed in the same universe and were going to go kill the father of one of my villains. And then I realized what had to happen. So I finished up the story and shelfed it for a while.
When my friend informed me that novellas are the big market right now, I realized that that was my opportunity to flesh things out. And it spiraled from there. I knew who to include right off the bat. And then it snowballed–I knew what had to happen, what had to draw these characters from the middle of nowhere to the other towns on the continent.
The first thing I did was separate a page into columns, with the important characters’ names at the top. I focused on actions, things that were going to happen. I avoided focusing on “feeling” words, because while feelings propel action, focusing on feelings forces your story into purple prose, yammering on and on about how they feel since your plot has dropped off the radar for the moment.
As I wrote down things, I had those flashes of realization: “Okay, so he needs to die so his son can take over years before the start of the first book. But how am I going to kill him when I fully intend to [spoiler spoiler spoiler]?”
That was how I figured out who needed to be in the story. And once I started asking myself about placement, that was how I knew how each character got to where they were–they didn’t just end up there on accident.
Once I felt satisfied with the amount of plot points…… okay, once I filled up the entire front side of the paper, I made timelines of these events–one timeline for each character. Then I felt comfortable making an overall timeline so I would know in what order these things happened.
If you’re a “seat-of-the-pantser,” that might sound horrible. When I was in high school, I found myself changing the endings all the time. But the more you think about your plot, the easier it is to stick to it. Get into the heads of your characters and determine where they would go based on their motives and personalities.
I have a lot more I can say about these matters, but here’s where it connects more directly to your question. If you know exactly where your character’s story begins in your main story, then you should plot out what it took to get them there. Don’t just write out random ideas. Psychologically, what motivates your character? What’s important to them?
If necessary, write it out backwards! Start from the end and work your way back to where your background book should begin–you’ll know when you get there!
Marie is a lumberjack who becomes Alan’s sidekick on his journey to avenge the death of his little sister.
They met in the middle of the desert, as Alan is dying of dehydration. Marie, using her superb strength, carries him to the forest and revives him at the pond.
So where did Marie come from? Why was she in the desert? If you start backward, then figure out the event immediately before she found Alan and decided to help him.
Perhaps there was a prophecy that said he’d be there. Maybe she’s looking for vengeance, too, and the desert was her path to the woman who killed her mother.
Progress from each event backward until you get to where your backstory ends/begins. 🙂
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