How much backstory does a reader need in order to understand a character, and how soon does the writer need to include that information?
The answer to the first part of that question is the usual—it depends. When to include the information is a little easier to pinpoint, but not always.
Okay, you’re probably thinking, well that tells me nothing. The problem is there is no easy answer.
New writers want to tell the reader everything about a character. After all, the writer probably spent a day or two creating a character sheet that detailed the character’s physical characteristics, family background, education, favorite color…everything. The writer knows this character in and out and wants to share this information with the reader. And, ultimately, the writer should share much of this information, but not all in one spot.
Too much is a turnoff.
Please, don’t tell me everything about a character when I first meet that character. I often compare that to the experience of going to a party and having someone I’ve never met before corner me and tell me her (or his) life story. All I want to do is get away from that person.
On the other hand, when I first meet someone (a living person or a character in a story) and learn just a little bit about that person/character (especially if it’s an important piece of information for the situation), I want to know more, and I’ll either ask others for more information or at a later time be glad to have the character tell me more.
Timing is important.
Every scene in a book should have a purpose. Why is the character there and what will the character learn or do as a result of what’s happening? If the situation (scene) is one with a lot of tension, backstory needs to be at a minimum. If the scene is one where the character is mulling over ideas or sitting and reminiscing with friends, a large block of backstory can be included, either in the character’s mind or from what others tell the character.
In Medias Res
Most writing books tell writers to start with an important scene. Either start where we’re shown what a character’s life is or has been up to that moment and then, soon after, follow that scene with an event that’s going to change the character’s life. Or start with an action scene, one with a high level of tension, where a character’s abilities are demonstrated. (These might be physical abilities or mental.)
In either case, the backstory will be best illustrated by where a character is, what a character does, and how others interact with the character. It’s the familiar saying: show don’t tell.
In the first scene in A KILLER PAST, Mary Harrington’s car stops running two blocks from her house. It’s late at night, the neighborhood is run down, and two teenage gang members are watching her. She must decide what to do. This is not the place to tell her life story, instead, I have her making decisions that are based on her character and her past.
When Mary leaves her car to walk home, the reader knows quite a bit about her without me going into much detail. The reader knows she’s a grandmother; that she’s a widow; that she didn’t let her son drive her home because she doesn’t want to be considered feeble; that she feels she can take care of herself; that her late-husband considered her strong; that she exercises regularly; that she knows the boys are a danger (so she transfers her keys and credit card to her jacket); and that she’s not as capable of defending herself as she once was.
And, by the end of that first chapter, the reader also knows that Mary Harrington could have killed the two boys but she didn’t.
This is all the information about Mary’s past that I need to convey at this point in the story. Later, bit by bit, Mary will show and tell the reader about her past.
If I did it right, the reader will want to keep reading.