Why’d He Do That?

We often hear that it’s bad to use backstory. It doesn’t hook the reader. Stops the forward movement of the story. Readers skip it; editors reject it.

But wait! Don’t you want to let the reader know what happened in your character’s past that’s causing him/her to act this way?


The problem is backstory usually becomes an information dump. We are given way too much data, and often too much at one time. Yes, you the writer need to know what happened in your character’s past because the more you understand this character, the more real you’ll be able to make him/her seem. But we, the readers, don’t need all of this information. We certainly don’t need to know everything that happened to this person from the day he or she was born. All we need are the crucial events that shaped his personality and created his goals and motivation. And this is true of the antagonists as well as the protagonists.

I need to know why my villain is doing bad things. I need to know what led up to the murder, theft, kidnapping, etc. Yes, it’s usually a desire (or need) for money, love, or power, but why does this character resort to these means?

Too often a “new” writer will simply say, “Well, she’s crazy, that’s why.” Or “He’s simply bad. Bad to the bone.” Well, those answers aren’t enough. People who rob, kill, rape have a reason for doing these things. We may not agree with that reason, but if the reason makes sense to the villain, then we have a better understanding of that character.

Just as a lot of backstory early in the book can bog down the story, so can a long denouement (Agatha Christi style) at the end, create a ho-hum ending. Rather than having the protagonist explain all, it is far better to “plant” the information throughout the story.

Therefore, a “character sheet” is as important for antagonists as it is for protagonists. Physical appearance may or may not be important. (It was for Phantom of the Opera). It’s the event or events that created this character’s personality and situation that need to be thought out and then dished out in bits and pieces so we begin to understand the person. When I write a mystery or suspense, I always have to go back in time and figure out what was going on in my villain’s life before my story started. If it’s a robbery, why does he need money? Why is this the only way he sees to get that money? Why does he think he can get away with this? In the past, has he always gotten away with taking things? Or is this a situation where he’ll actually do the opposite of what is normal. And if so, why?

Why, why, why?

If you understand the villain, then you can insert clues (bits of information) in the story so when the reader reaches the end, you don’t need a long explanation .Perhaps it’s something one of the other characters mentions. “He was worried about how he was going to pay for his mother to be in a nursing home.” Or maybe it’s something the protagonists discovers. I saw the dunning letter from the bank. Evidently John Doe wasn’t doing as well as he’d said. Or perhaps, if we’re in the villain’s pov, it’s a quick memory of his mother grabbing his “nuts” followed by the villain telling his victim, “You women are all alike. You want to castrate us.”

A few words can tell the reader as much as a paragraph or two and moves the story forward rather than back. So take the time to understand the motivation of all of your main characters. If you understand why they act as they do, they will become real, and this will show in your writing.

By the way, sorry I missed posting a blog last Wednesday. I had some peridontal work done and was given a sedative that really knocked me out. I ended up sleeping for almost 48 hours. Somehow I have to figure a way to use that in a story.

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6 Responses to Why’d He Do That?

  1. Thanks for the timely post, Maris. Info-dumping is one of the weak spots in my writing and I’m constantly fighting the urge to “tell all” up front. You’ve given some great suggestions how to overcome that urge and move the story forward.

  2. Kristen says:

    This is good stuff, Maris. I’m going to go back through a first draft soon, and I’ll be sure to watch for piles of backstory. I hope you’re recovered from your sedative… thanks for posting!

    • Maris Soule says:

      Kristen, I’ve never had a sedative like that. My husband has been telling me I went into Walgreen’s with him after leaving the dentist’s office, that I told him I wanted a Jaguar, not a BMW, and that he had to hang on to me to get me back in our condo. I do remember seeing double. Otherwise I was out of it. I am back to normal…or as normal as I ever am.

  3. Melissa Keir says:

    We want to show our backstory like a peep show, just a glimpse now and again. Great advice. I hope you feel better now that the work is done. I’m sure you’ll get it into a story somehow!

  4. Diane Burton says:

    Good points, Maris. Yes, I want to know what in the character’s life started him/her on the path they’ve chosen.

    Hope you’re feeling better.

    • Maris Soule says:

      In my case, Diane, I’ve been working out why three men would have wanted to kill my dead guy. It really helps if I understand their motivation.