If you want readers to know about your character’s past, put it in the form of an anecdote.
Don’t just tell them her parents split up when she was nine, have her remember how they bought her a talking doll before telling her the cat had been run over, a princess outfit before telling her Nana had cancer, and a bike before telling her they were getting a divorce. And now, every time someone gives her a present, she feels like running screaming from the room.
Fact and figures, names and dates don’t mean anything to readers.
In real life we nod politely when someone forces us to listen to them because we’re trapped by manners and social mores, but we’re really praying for someone to come and save us.
Or, if you’ve already been infected with the sickness, you’re waiting for a pause so you can inflict your own tedious minutia on their ear holes.
That’s not going to be good enough in fiction where manners mean nothing. You can’t close the cover on their face (sadly), but you can close it on their book.
The thing that happened in your character’s past that the reader absolutely needs to know, that thing had better have happened in an interesting way worth recounting. Because otherwise the reader doesn’t need to know it.
You may think the reader needs to know. You’d be wrong.
Even if this vital-but-dull information is essential, without it I have zero chance of understanding what happens in the story, what if I decide not to read any more of the book? How essential is it now?
Here’s an example of the kind of typical backstory I see a lot of:
Jenny’s father was a sergeant in the army, which meant they were always moving around the country. Six months in Texas, three in Louisiana, nine in San Francisco. A year in Nebraska and another in South Dakota. Fillimore High was her fifteenth school in six years.
The above is clear and factual. I’m sure you understand what Jenny’s life has been like. I’ve kept it quite short (because I was glazing over just writing it), but I’ve seen much longer versions of this kind of thing. It’s a lot of general information that gives you a general idea about the kind of life Jenny has, generally.
Here’s an example of what I’m suggesting you do:
Jenny’s father was good at pissing people off. Since he was a sergeant in the army, this meant they got transferred around the country. A lot. Six months in Texas was the longest they’d spent in one place, until he punched a three star general in the stomach. Couldn’t be helped, he’d claimed. The general was sleeping with Dad’s new fiancée – there was always a new fiancée — so he had it coming. Jenny had to put on the ‘please don’t lock up my daddy’ eyes — not for the first time — to get him out of that one. In the last six years, there’d been fourteen schools. As far as Jenny was concerned, Fillimore High was just number fifteen.
Specific information gives you a specific idea of what Jenny is like. A specific thing that happened that demonstrates the point you want the reader to take on board. This allows you to pass information to the reader, whether backstory or exposition, without them realising it.
Don’t make lists, use a single anecdote to sum up the experience in a way that gets the information across in an entertaining and memorable way.
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