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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Back Story vs Character History

by Rachel Hauck

Ding, ding!

Referee: “Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the first ever bout between Back Story and Character History.”

Wahhaaaaa. Cheeerrrs!

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!”

Waahhhh…. crowd cheering.

“And in this corner, from Miami Beach, wearing blue shorts, weighing a sleek one hundred and seventy-eight pounds is the challenger, Chhhaaaarrracter Hhhiiiistorrrryyy.”

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 the canvas.

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 right jab.

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 presses forward.

“This is it folks. Back Story will win in round one with a one-two punch.”

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 talking about?”

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. 

When he 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 story. 

It ups the readers attachment to Billy Bob. This bit of history adds tension. 

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.

“You okay?”
“I’m here aren’t I?”
“Just wondering.”
“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.

Sure, 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 bit curious.

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.

Ding, ding!

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.

She is also the Book Therapist for My Book Therapy.

She lives in Florida, where she is also a worship leader, with her husband and mini schnauzer.

Her novel, The Wedding Dress, was named Romantic Times Inspirational Novel of the Year. Her latest release, Once Upon A Prince, earned starred reviews from Booklist and Publisher's Weekly.

Visit her at


  1. Nice visual, Rachel. I write my backstory almost as a separate scene (or three). I use it to establish my character's dark moment, big lie, and happy moment (I like to put them all close together if I can). It seems a lot of extra work, but it satisfies my desire for my character to have a past and I fool myself into a character development exercise, which is my least favorite task. Thanks for the post.

  2. Excellent article, Rachel. Most of us at one point have mistaken these two. I tell newer writers it's like meeting someone new at a party. If they begin to tell you their whole life history in that first few minutes, you're sidestepping toward the door. I like it when an author gives me little tidbits that help me understand the character but leave some mystery. It keeps me turning pages! Thanks for the tips!

    1. So you've met my father-in-law, Ane. My apologies.


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