Everyone has a past. In fiction, we call it back story. It’s not always appropriate to include it in your manuscript, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write it. Everything about our past influences our actions – the same is true about our characters. No one “just” decides to do something. You need to know enough about your characters to know what’s influencing their actions.
So why is back story important?
Because the story started when your character was born, not where you started writing the novel. Your 35 year-old heroine has 34 years of history influencing her decisions. Do you know what happened back then?
I’ll be honest – I don’t believe that an introverted, workaholic, well-coifed woman is going to meet the man of her dreams at her high school alma mater’s football game one Friday night “just” because she was there. If she’s a workaholic, why would she take the time off for a football game? If she’s a football fan, why doesn’t she watch NCAA and NFL games from the comfort of her home? If she liked high school so much, why isn’t she a teacher? What’s her deal?
If you don’t know why she’s at the game, it’s just a convenient meeting point and your reader will see through that. You need to know why she’s there:
This high class lady steps out of her heels and into team colors every week because it reminds her of her dad. He was a workaholic, but he loved football. No matter how busy things got, he took his little girl to every home game. It was their bonding time. When he died of a heart attach her senior year of college, she moved back home to be near her mom. She started going to games to remember her dad.
She doesn’t resent her dad’s work hours because she knows that as the youngest of seven kids on a farm, he didn’t have much growing up. That’s why he worked so hard, and that’s why she respected him. It’s also why she works so hard.
And that’s why she loves football. That’s why she was at the game that one night, why she met the new head coach, why she fell in love, and why her story became a romance novel.
It’s possible that none of this information will make it into your novel, but you need to know it. There’s no better way to know what happened than to write it down. J.R.R. Tolkien knew the entire history of Middle Earth when he wrote The Lord of the Rings. There are only four books in his popular series, but there are TWELVE books of Middle Earth history. By the time he told the 14-month saga of Aragorn, Frodo, and Legolas, he not only knew his characters, he knew how men, hobbits, and elves in general thought and acted because he knew their histories. We need to make sure we know our characters, too (though probably not as thoroughly as Tolkien did).
Write some back story. Start at the beginning of your novel and work backwards. Keep asking ‘why’ until you figure out what makes your characters tick. Embrace your characters’ pasts so you can give them an authentic future.