When you begin your story, you don’t necessarily begin with your character’s birth or childhood. Well, maybe except for biographies or stories that intentionally follow a character’s entire life. (Forrest Gump, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, etc.) But most stories usually begin by establishing the kind of person your character is, the people around him and a little bit about his background.
The events that happen to your character before you begin your story is what’s called the character’s backstory. This is what informs how and why your character is the way he is at the start of your story. If your character is a vengeful and skilled female assassin, why is she that way? Her parents were murdered before her by a notorious mob when she was young. She escaped the killers and was found by a secret agency who are after the same mob. The agency trained her in martial arts and espionage for years, raising her to become a highly competent assassin. That’s why she is like that at the beginning of your story.
As a writer, it’s important that you know your character’s backstory. And not just your main character, but all of the major players in your screenplay. Knowing their backstories will allow you to add more depth to your characters and avoid having cardboard characters in your screenplay – characters that exist just because. Especially for your main character, knowing the backstory will help you identify his need or the emotional “wound” that he will carry throughout the story. For example, in The Silence of the Lambs, the protagonist Clarice Starling was traumatized by the sound of lambs being slaughtered in her youth. This is her backstory and the source of her trauma, or the “wound” that she carries throughout the film which she seeks to heal by rescuing the senator’s daughter from Buffalo Bill.
However, your audience doesn’t always need to know your characters’ backstories from the get-go.
DIFFERENT WAYS OF TELLING THE BACKSTORY
It used to be that prologues were the go-to storytelling devices to tell the backstory of the main character. You start the story with a short one that takes place in the past, explaining how the main character became what he is now. Sometimes this can be a dream that the main character is experiencing before he wakes up in the present. Other prologues establish the past of the world in which the story takes place. Some films still do this, like The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring or Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Some stories have put a spin on how prologues are told, as is the case with Enola Holmes, where she basically dictates to the audience her backstory, breaking the 4th wall. There’s also the emotional opening montage of Up which has become the stuff of legend.
As time went on, other ways of telling the backstory emerged. Flashbacks became a thing and has been used frequently. Toy Story 2 used a flashback (with an accompanying song for maximum emotional impact) when Jessie told the story of how she was abandoned by her previous owner.
Others use expository dialogue to explore a character’s backstory. Going back to The Silence of the Lambs, a good example was the quid pro quo between Hannibal Lecter and Clarice where the protagonist talks about the lamb slaughtering incident.
Nowadays, it’s generally preferred to limit long expository scenes, dialogue or prologues that tell the backstory. A common reason for this is because there’s not much conflict in backstories. They only serve to establish the reason behind a character being that kind of character. Yes, the backstory is important, but just as important is the way you tell your story. It’s hard to grab audiences when you spend more than ten minutes explaining things. Audiences want conflict, tension and drama. That’s why it’s often suggested that your opening scenes be attention-grabbing while establishing a main character enough so that we know the kind of person they are. We know the kind of person The Joker is with the opening robbery scene of The Dark Knight but we don’t know his motives yet. The writers saved that for later.
One often-used method to tell the backstory without long, expository dialogue or long prologues is through a character’s actions or conversations sprinkled all throughout the screenplay. When you put all of these together, you get the backstory. For example, in Season 2 of The Boys, we don’t know who Stormfront really is when she was first introduced to us. The elements of her backstory are told to us piece by piece. First, she unnecessarily tore through an apartment occupied by families of color as she pursued, and eventually killed, The Female’s brother. Later, we find out that she may be linked to the racially-motivated murder by a superhero in the 70s. And finally, to complete her backstory, she comes clean to Homelander by telling him that she was the first superhero created in the series’ universe by her husband, a Nazi, which explains her racism. The show’s writers didn’t pack all of these in a single prologue or monologue. They used clues and tiny bits of the backstory and scattered them throughout the first half of the season until the perfect time to reveal Stormfront’s true nature came.
Regardless of the storytelling technique you use to tell your character’s backstory, never undermine its importance to your story and your audience. A character’s past is what helps audiences understand that character at a deeper level. An underdog character is made such by past failures. A terrifying character is defined by his past crimes. And audiences empathize with characters when they understand where their actions are coming from.