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  • Writer's pictureJudy

March 10, 2024: The Power of the Backstory

I sat with my struggling 5th grade student. She was lamenting that her narrative had reached a point where she was totally stuck. She did not know what to do. She did not know how to move the story forward.

         “Writer’s Block is totally real!” she groaned.


         I asked her a few questions about her story, and she seemed to have a solid vision for where she wanted it to go. Then I asked her about the characters. That was when I discovered that she had not spent any time thinking about or creating backstories for her main characters.


Creating backstories is a foundational practice for writers of fiction.  This is where and when you create characters with depth.  You not only plot out how the character fits into your story, but how they drive the plot forward, how their choices and reactions impact the narrative and others within the story.  You also create a full-blown history for them.  You create moments, experiences, and a life that never makes it into your story, but helps to explain who and what this character is.  Why they do what they do.


         This can certainly be time consuming, and some writers may even question whether it is worth the effort and time, but any investment in creating backstories, most certainly results in deeper, more authentic, and interesting characters.  Which of course, results in a better, more compelling story.


         Most writers have their own favorite ways of creating their characters’ backstories. A couple of my favorites are:


-       Get a notebook and imagine that this is the diary of your character.  Start to add entries as you climb into their thoughts and their skin.  Write about their teenage angst, a first crush, or other moments that helped to make them the type of person they currently are in your story.

-       Fill out a quick “loves/hates” list. What is their favorite color? What food do they hate? The possibilities are endless and the list can go on and on.

-       Imagine you pulled a scrapbook of theirs off a shelf. What photos and mementoes would be in it? Why?  What moments were captured? What does this reveal about who they are?


Creating backstories may not always seem productive or immediately impactful, but any time spent working on our creativity and writing skill, is time well spent. And strong backstories make for a strong foundation for whatever story we are trying to tell.


         After our discussion, my student set her laptop to the side, and pulled out her notebook. She spent the rest of our writing time jotting and writing and making notes in her notebook.  As we wrapped up, I checked in with her again. Did working on her character’s backstory help her to decide how she was going to proceed with her narrative?


         “My writer’s block has been blown to bits!” she said gleefully.

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