Category: Backstory

Backstory for Dummies! reallly does have a page for everything. They have one for screenwriting and it specifically covers backstory and the steps needed to establish one for a character.

Creating the Backstory For Your Characters  – from

Most writers dream a little before they tackle writing their scripts. Actually, they dream a lot. Before you craft an environment, you want to know its history, its geographical location, and its condition. Before you write a scene between parents, you want to know what attracted them to each other, how long they’ve been together, how many children they have, and the like…

The ability to write complex events inhabited by complex people comes from knowing everything you can about why those events occurred and who those people are. The details you unearth may not all make it into your final draft, but they will add color and depth to the eventual script…

Backstory refers to everything that occurred in your story’s past. A character’s backstory may include family background, job history, psychological condition, and any memories you create for that person from childhood on. The backstory of a situation includes events that led up to it and a suggestion of why that situation’s occurring now.


Walter White’s past is suggested but never completely explained.

Elements of the backstory

You may find it helpful to invent your script’s history one section at a time. Just as detectives follow a certain line of questioning, so will you subject your story to an inquisition of sorts. Here’s a list of categories that you may want to consider in your search for a backstory:

  • Convictions and beliefs: What are your character’s political, social, and economic views? Does your character have any theories on life in general or in detail? How did he or she come to feel that way?
  • Education: Consider both formal education and acquired education in this category. Where your character went to high school may be as important as the three months he spent on the streets learning to play the drums.
  • Family background: Invent your character’s family history, including the uncle she was named after but never sees. Friends are included in this category.
  • Geographic location: Detail any environment that helped shape your character’s present circumstances. Create everything from the climate to the socio-economic make-up of the community to the carefully manicured lawns.
  • Key past events: Virtually every main event in your story will be possible because of something that’s occurred in the past. What events led up to those in your story, and why did they occur?
  • Past successes and failures: People are shaped in part by their best and worst memories. Knowing what your character’s track record is may be helpful in certain situations that arise in the script itself.
  • Phobias: Your characters’ fears dictate what they avoid in life and, in some cases, what’s pushing them to succeed. Think specific and general; a fear of rose thorns may be just as compelling as a fear of commitment. The film Arachnophobia was fueled by the main character’s fear of spiders.
  • Profession: How do your characters make a living? Do they enjoy working at the library, or are they biding their time? How did they get where they are?
  • Quirks: What makes them unique, physically and psychologically? In Forrest Gump, the main character is compiled of odd characteristics, one of which is how fast he can run. The film A Beautiful Mind tackles one man’s battle with schizophrenia. A character’s quirks may propel your story forward.
  • System of values: People differ in where they draw the line between right and wrong. What do your characters value most in themselves? In a lover? In a child? What types of behavior would make them ill?
  • Talents: What has your character always been good at? Does he utilize that talent, or has it gone by the wayside? Perhaps your story starts on the day an opportunity arises for that talent to emerge.
  • Time period: What part of history are you tackling? Whose history will you portray? Is yours a Civil War story or that of a future age? If you plan to flash between moments in your character’s life, how many moments and what were they?

Each of these categories suggests its own series of questions that you might answer about your story. Jot those questions down as they occur to you; you’ll undoubtedly return to them with each new person and environment you create. Although it’s impossible to highlight upon all that you discover in a single script, much of your story may come from the information you invent now.


12 Years a Slave features a story set in the 1850s.

Developing a screenplay through backstory

Imagine that you’re a tourist in a foreign country — you don’t speak the language, the people aren’t familiar, and anything might happen to you next. This experience isn’t unlike that of most movie-goers. They need someone to guide them through their journey and a guidebook to understand the importance of what they see along the way. You are their guide; the backstory is their guidebook.

A detailed backstory may be your greatest source of support as a screenwriter. It renders your characters unique and colorful, which will inform how they speak and behave throughout your story. It helps establish a clear world for your characters to explore and, therefore, provides the fuel for most — if not all — of the future scenes in your script.

Consider the information that you have: You’ve created a time period, an environment, and some character biographies. You may also have envisioned several situations leading up to your story’s main events. Your next step involves conveying those details to an audience that knows next to nothing about your story.

You can easily convey time periods and locations through costume, dialect, a lingering description of the landscape, or a caption alerting your audience that the story takes place in Paris, 1763. Past events and character traits are often more elusive. Although there’s no single formula for using this type of backstory to generate scenes, you may want to consider the following process as a way to begin:

1. Identify the detail that you want to develop. It might be an event, a trait, a location, a family member, or a friendship. Choose one element.

For example, your main character could have moved around constantly as a child and is, therefore, unable to settle down as an adult. That unsettled sensibility could be the detail in question.

2. Visualize three ways the detail manifested itself in the past. In particular, concentrate on what moments might reveal the detail to a stranger.

For example, you could envision your character as a child. She’s kept her bedroom decidedly blank, anticipating the next move. She fidgets constantly in school, often upsetting her classmates. She travels with an imaginary friend — the only constant in an ever-fluctuating environment.

3. Visualize three ways the detail manifests itself in the present. Every character exists in at least three roles during the course of a day. Your main character might be at once a mother, a neighbor, and a renowned biologist. Decide how the detail affects your character in several venues.


Julianne Moore in The Kids Are All Right has several roles: wife, lover,  and mother.

For example, you might imagine that your character is a marathon dater, unable to settle on any person for a length of time. She juggles three jobs at once, constantly dashing from one end of town to another. Although she’s lived in an apartment for a year, she has yet to completely unpack.

4. Decide which scenes might exist in your screenplay. Flag any scenario you visualized that will help an audience understand the story you want to write. If more occur to you along the way, jot those down, too. You’ll return to those scenes later when you begin piecing your screenplay together.

Not every piece of information you come up with will find its way into your screenplay. If you’re telling a Civil War story, you may concentrate on your character’s political history and ignore his family background. On the other hand, if your Civil War story centers on Abraham Lincoln, his upbringing might be important. The type of story you’re telling will dictate which details you reveal from the past. But remember, whether you focus on it or not, everything you imagine will enhance and strengthen your script.



By Bill Adams

I have been struggling with the idea of backstory in my latest novel. Backstory literally brings the forward momentum of a story to a dead stop. For this reason, backstory is to be avoided.

All the same, backstory seems to be built into every good character arc. The main character has a goal (what Aristotle called the hamartia), but is hampered from completing it by a psychic wound or other vulnerability.spencertracy

(In Bad Day at Black Rock, Spencer Tracy has an all time great back story)

The main character is typically not aware of his vulnerability (think Oedipus and his hubris). That conflict between the conscious and the subconscious animates a good character. In the Aristotlean method, the story turns when the main character overcomes their vulnerability and achieves their goal.

The problem arises when writers feel the need to explain why their characters are the way they are. It’s usually a bad childhood or a war injury, disgrace, shame, etc. Soon, writers are traipsing down the garden path of backstory.


(Dressing impeccably, but tormented internally: Gregory Peck in The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit)

I don’t think it has to, however. You can show the character’s flawed personality throughout the story by having him or her do things that are seemingly out of character and at those moments, allude to the past. This avoids the info-dump and doesn’t stop the story dead.

For example, Mrs. Dalloway reminisces a lot, as Woolf characters are wont to do and one day when talking to a male friend, she inexplicably bursts into tears. The narrator puts us in her head and we learn that she married for economic security instead of for love, and now, facing her woulda-been lover, realizes the magnitude of her mistake. It’s not a big info-dump, just a few sentences. The weight of the scene is carried in the present-tense tear burst, not by the backstory.

A full-fledged backstory with a flashback generally doesn’t work. It  worked in The Godfather II because that story was a picaresque – highly episodic, with no strong story throughline. It was really just “one damn thing after another.” In that structure, a flashback is a good as any other episode.

Godfather 2

(I know it was you Fredo…because of your picaresque backstory! Al Pacino gives John Cazale some shocking news in The Godfather II)

That’s how you get away with it also in “superhero” adventures – the story of how Batman got his ears or The Lone Ranger got his mask. You can do a full backstory, because the main story is little more than a set of episodes.

But if you have a well-defined plot, then either you have to start at the beginning (as Sophocles does with Oedipus Rex, or as Dickens does with Great Expectations), and show the original trauma/loss then move forward in time, or else you have to weave the backstory in through little comments and notes throughout as Virginia Woolf did.

Since I’ve got a strong plot, I’m going to try that latter strategy. And I’m thinking, I don’t really have to explain the early causal event. All I have to show is the personality conflict. Where it came from is not all that important. Let it remain mysterious. That’s going to be my strategy.

(For more on backstory: