Referee: “Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the first ever
bout between Back Story and Character History.”
Ref: “In this corner, from the New York City, wearing black
shorts, weighing in at a hefty five hundred and eighty-two pounds is the
champion of all novel prose, Baaaaack Storrrryyyyyy!”
“And in this corner, from Miami Beach, wearing blue shorts, weighing
a sleek one hundred and seventy-eight pounds is the challenger,
Wooooo…. Crowd booing.
Referee: “All right you two, I want a clean fight. No
hitting below the belt, no tripping, spitting, holding or biting. Touch gloves,
go to your mutual corners and when the bell rings, come out fighting.”
Character History leaps to the center, bouncing, dancing,
he’s full of pip. From his corner, Back Story lumbers to the center of the ring.
One cross from the herculean champ, Character History will be out, face down on
Character History circles, jabbing at his opponent.
“He sure seems confident, Bill.”
“I’ll say he does, Sam.”
Smirking, Back Story takes a wide stance, raises his gloved
fists and waits, his hawk-like gaze tracing the young fighter. He’ll not give
up his championship belt without a fight.
He know, this young whipper-snapper
has no power over him.
Character History bobs and weaves. He taunts. “You’re going
down, Back Story. You’re going down.”
“Take your best shot, wise guy.” Back Story strikes, a hard
Oh! Character History takes the hit on the chin. His head
snaps back and he wobbles to stay up. He’s against the ropes. Back Story
“This is it folks. Back Story will win in round one with a
Just as he swings, Character History cuts low and lands a
hard shot to Back Story’s ribs. The big man is stumbling, breathing heavily.
His arms slip low but he recovers, watching Character
History circle. He strikes again with an uppercut…
“But mercy, Bill, Back Story misses by a mile.”
“And here comes Character History. With a jab, cross,
uppercut. Ooo, Back Story is taking a beating. He’s teetering… he’s stumbling…
he’s against the ropes. Sam, it’s not looking good for Back Story.”
Character History throws one final blow. A sharp cross. And
Back Story falls!
The whole arena quakes as he hits the canvas. It’s like
watching Goliath being quelled with one of David’s stones.
The ref is on his knee, counting. “One, twos, three, four….
nine, ten. You’re out, Back Story. You’re out.”
It’s over. In Round One.
“Ladieeesssss and gentlemennnn, Chhhhaaarrracter Hissstory
is the new prose Cham’peeean of the World.
Fun, uh? Okay, I can hear y’all now, “Rachel, what are you
I’m talking about back story verses character history.
What’s the difference? Strength, power, speed, agility and ability to sustain
the long haul of a novel.
Back story is old fashioned writing. It’s large and
encumbersome. Slow. Waddling. And most of the time, unnecessary.
But writers use it and readers endure it because it gives us
some glimpse into the heart and soul of a character.
Character History is hot, lean and sleek, fast and quick, in
and out, not weighing down the story.
Back story, we all know, slows down the action. We’ve heard
the rule: No back story for the first 30-50 pages.
But wait, what if an author needs the reader to know
something critical about the character for the opening scenes to make sense?
That, my lovelies, is character history.
For example, Billy Bob is about to go on his first police
call -- a possible robbery -- since returning to the force after being shot in
the gut while responding to a bank hold up.
He’s nervous. He’s anxious.
gets inside the establishment, he draws his gun a bit too early and almost
shoots his partner.
What’s going on with him? I f we stick to the “no back story
rule” we miss the importance of this moment.
His jittery nerves just make us
think he drank too much coffee. We don’t care.
What the reader needs a bit of history. A line or two of prose, or even better dialog, that gives
the reader a hint of Billy Bob’s emotional state.
The scar on his
shoulder from the bullet wound burned and twisted as Billy Bob entered the
bank. It’d only been four weeks… and in a split moment, he couldn’t remember
why he’d returned to this job.
Ah, the reader has learned there’s something more to the
It ups the readers attachment to Billy Bob. This bit of history adds
What bullet in the gut? When? Who shot him? Why?
All of those question, left hanging, build tension and will be answered later
in the story.
If the writer wanted, s/he could add a line of dialog
from his partner.
“I’m here aren’t I?”
“You do your job, I’ll do mine.”
Why was his partner asking Billy Bob if he was okay? Hmm?
The reader wants to find out more so s/he turns the page.
Back story is another matter. Back Story stops the forward
action and talks about things unrelated to the current scene and emotion.
Back story interjects another story.
it’s about Billy Bob and it’s all true, but it takes the reader to another emotional place.
Here’s a back story blob:
“Since taking a bullet in the gut, Billy Bob wondered if he
could still be a cop on the beat. But his dad had been a cop and his father
before him. Every Martin man wore the badge.
Billy Bob remembered the first
time he held his father’s badge, feeling the cool metal in his palm, stroking
his finger over the shiny brass.
He knew then, at then, he’d be a cop just like
his father. Mother didn’t want him to be. She worried about Dad, but if a man
put on blue and a gold badge, wasn’t he invincible?”
Wow! All that while checking on a robbery call? By now, the
reader’s forgotten what was going on.
And some back story trails go on for pages and pages.
Meanwhile, the burglar has escaped while our hero
mused over his past. Or worse, shot Billy Bob’s partner.
The reader doesn’t need that much information. Save it for later. Perhaps in a conversation with
his Dad when our hero, Billy Bob, is facing a voice-of-truth moment.
Back Story is more for the author than the reader. Character
History is for the reader, and the power of the story.
So, what’s Character History and how do we use it?
1.Character History applies to the current action on the
stage. If your heroine cannot stand the hero, don’t let her behave irrationally,
leaving the reader in the dark. Don’t give us a snippy rude girl without giving
us motivation. Drop in a line of history. “Ever since seventh grade when he stole her PE
clothes from her locker and she got detention, Jen couldn’t stand Colby Witherspoon.”
2.Drop in the pertinent history related to the character's current emotion and motivation and exit quickly. Leave the reader a
3.Character History sets up tension. Drop in a line about
how your character is afraid of…. snakes or heights. Can you imagine how boring the snake scene
would’ve been in Indiana Jones would've been if Indy went on for several minutes about the reason he hated snakes. How his big
brother used to toss snakes on him when they played in his grandma’s creek? Who
cares at that point? All we needed in the opening scene was "I have snakes."
4.Character History is part of the prose painting. It helps the reader take a breath and get into
the heart and mind of the protagonist. But be careful. Just a bit of history is
all we need. Use dialog, or a fast line or
prose, to paint the history. Don’t give
the reader a montage that begins when our heroine is ten and ends when she’s
sixteen. All you need is enough to fill
the reader in.
5.Character History sheds light on the protagonist
motivations. Let the history pertain to what’s happening in the
current scene. If your character is dealing with, oh, say, an errant child,
don’t stop and give a dissertation on the protagonist own childhood and
upbringing. Not necessary. Boring. But, do tell us how her mother was so kind
and patient, and it frustrates her how she is so impatient and sharp. That’s
all the reader needs to get what’s going on with the protagonist motivation.
Watch out for phrases like, “a sound brought her back into
the present.” Ooo, where did she go?
We all love
to sit and reminisce, but a novel is about tension, conflict and moving
forward. Most of us don’t stop to muse or reflect while arguing with our friend
or trying to save the world. Right?
Now, these are guidelines. Once in awhile, we do have a
character drift off in thought for a moment, but be guarded. Ask yourself if
there is a better, more emotionally impacting way to present the information.
If not, then go for the reflect and keep it brief.
So, there you have it. The bout between Back Story and
Character History. Go out writing and have a clean fight with your words.
Best-selling, award-winning author Rachel Hauck loves a great story.
With a love for teaching and mentoring, Rachel comes alongside writers to help them craft their novels.
She serves on the Executive Board for American Christian Fiction Writers and leads worship for their annual conference. At the fall conference in Indianapolis, she was named ACFW 2013 Mentor of the Year.