Backstory to the future

I haven’t been a big fan of world-building and backstory beyond a certain point. But my last novel convinced me I’m not doing enough of it. Even though I thought I’d done enough, I kept hitting places where the world just seemed flat somehow.

So when I started preparation for my latest novel I vowed to spend more time on backstory and world-building. It’s been a struggle, let me tell you. I’m impatient to get on to writing the story already! Besides, I’ve been hearing cautionary tales for years about people who spend so much time creating their world they never actually get around to writing the novel.

But something clicked for me today. I was filling out a little section of the world by writing some quick notes on what weaponry these particular people used. It got to thinking it might be cool to have swords be scarce in this country, but what swords they have tend to be highly valued and with strong lineage. And if, for any reason, a family loses a sword they will go to extreme lengths to get it back, leaving a trail of bodies if necessary.

I was pleased with that. Not a bad little piece of set-dressing, I thought. It certainly adds some color. Then new ideas began to enter my mind. Would people from neighboring lands have an expression based on that, indicating that someone is getting into a lot of trouble? Would they use “like claiming a Sandovar blade” in the same way we talk about “stirring up a hornets nest”? Why not?

Before long a few other ideas also grew out of this one little paragraph, all of which have me increasingly excited about my new world. More importantly, I suspect that these ideas will get my readers more excited about my world, and give the novel a greater air of realism.

Whether it’s world-building or backstory, if you feel your stories might be a little sparse, a little two-dimensional, it might be worth spending more time fleshing out aspects of your setting or characters than you usually do. Add some color in a way that puts your unique fingerprint on things.

If coming up with original backstory is difficult, try the “three rejection” method. Whatever your initial idea or explanation is, don’t just accept it, but toss it and try something new. Then toss that and try something new still. For example, say I have a character who is nervous around strangers. The easiest explanation is that they were bullied as a youth.

Okay, good, but too easy. I would then reject that and try to think of something else, like his mother had a lot of boyfriends that treated him poorly. Better, and certainly gives me more loose ends to develop further from, but can I do better still?

Maybe there’s something about him that he doesn’t like other people to notice. Depending on the genre, this could be anything from bruises left by one of those latest boyfriends to his pupils glowing green at random times, to the fact that he wears makeup to hide a problematic birthmark or camouflage certain facial features.

Any one of those would be more interesting than just being bullied as a youth, and any one of those presents a launching point for even more backstory, should you I choose to go there.

Of course one danger of this is getting stuck down a rabbit hole, ever diverging from the initial idea that got you started and never making it back. Know when enough is enough.

This doesn’t have to only apply to initial novel preparation, either. You can also do this in mid-write if you find a scene or a section or a character getting a little dull. Take a few minutes to step outside the story for a moment and determine where some backstory might help move things forward better.

I’m still not sure I like writing a lot of backstory, but I’m certainly starting to accept that I can and should be doing more than I usually do. Maybe a little more might help you, too!

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom is a Utah transplant, works for a regional bank, and spends his lunch hours working on his latest novel. His wife, three kids, and four pets find him amusing and somewhat useful, so they keep him around.