How Backstories Add Dimension to Characters

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Ever read a story and thought, “Hey, why did that character just do that?” Or maybe, “There’s no way they’d be scared of that!” Well, the thing is, every character has a backstory, something like their own personal tale before the “Once upon a time…” bit. It’s like your friend who can’t stand pickles because they once ate a bad one at summer camp. Without that tiny nugget of information, their pickle-phobia might seem a bit… well, pickled.

Backstories bring in a dash of context, a sprinkle of depth, and a whole heap of character personality. Like, imagine if your friend wasn’t just randomly scared of heights, but had fallen out of a tree as a kid! Suddenly, their fear makes sense, and you might even feel a little tug at your heartstrings next time they have to climb a ladder.

Ever tried to write a character who’s got more baggage than a transatlantic flight? Yup, that’s what creating Mallory Montgomery (The Fallen Cowboy) and Louisa Coldiron (Breaking the Cowboy) felt like. It’s like they both signed up for a lifetime membership in the “Can’t Trust ’em, Won’t Trust ’em” club.

Mallory, bless her heart, had a childhood that could make a climb up Everest look like a stroll in the park. And Louisa? Let’s just say her first love experience was less of a heart-warming rom-com and more of a tear-jerker drama.

So, yeah, these two weren’t exactly dealing with a fear of heights or spiders. They were wrestling with big, meaty trust issues, the kind that can make a romance story feel like walking a tightrope over a shark tank. And these are the types of backstories I tend to gravitate towards as a writer.

Alright, let’s talk Tristan and Susannah from Legends of the Fall, shall we? This movie stuck with me for a lot of reasons. One glaring reason being Brad Pitt’s look as Tristan’s. He’s essentially the human equivalent of a thunderstorm – wild, unpredictable, and charged up like it’s been doing powerlifting squats all day. He sports a mane of blonde hair that’s free and untamed as a stallion on the prairie (cliché, but yeah). It’s usually tied back, but every now and then, he lets it loose like a rock star in a hair shampoo commercial.

Then, there’s the face. He’s got that rugged beard and mustache combo going on, adding a sprinkle of “lived-in-the-woods-for-a-month” charm to his boyish good looks.

His eyes? They’re this deep shade of blue that makes you think of Montana skies, or that one pair of jeans you can’t live without. They’re like sexy emotion-filled pools, dishing out more drama than a daytime soap opera (growl).

Now the body – it’s all lean muscle and sinew, like he’s been lifting logs instead of weights. He moves around with the grace of a mountain cat dressed in leather and denim that could tell a story or two- if the cat was a cowboy and the mountain was a sprawling ranch.


I digress.


Where was I? Oh, yes. Backstory.

When Legends of the Fall premiered in 1994, I was a newly married, deeply in love and the whole romance tragedy storyline was packed with all the feels, so it’s one of my favorite movies of all time.

Think of Tristan and Susannah’s tales as pizza and caviar (another glaring cooking analogy) – wildly different, yet equally enticing in their own ways. Their lives collide like bumper cars at a carnival, a spin of sparks and excitement. And just as in those amusing car games, it’s their differences, their contrasting backstories, that create the irresistible pull of passion and love. It’s the age-old saga – opposites do attract, and their pasts are no exception to this rule.

Tristan, the broody hero, is, uncontrollable as the Montana wilderness he was raised in. He’s got the spirit of a wolf and the heart of a poet. Losing his brother was a tough blow, turning him into a man of action more than words. He’s like that one mystery novel you just can’t put down, no matter how late it is.

And Susannah? She’s like a lovely, delicate china doll in the middle of a rowdy barn dance. She’s all grace and elegance, a total mismatch to Tristan’s wild, rough-and-tumble nature. Her past doesn’t have the same rugged edges as Tristan’s, but she’s got her own battles – trying to break free from the tight corset of society’s expectations. She’s like a birdie ready to burst out of a too-small birdhouse, and Tristan is the wide, wide world she’s itching to explore.

When these two come together, it’s like trying to start a fire in a rainstorm – it’s intense, it’s messy, and boy, does it keep you on your toes. Tristan’s got walls higher than a castle keep thanks to his past, and Susannah, well, she’s just trying to understand this complicated man who’s as fascinating as a locked treasure chest. They’re like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that almost fit, but not quite.

So, in a nutshell, Tristan and Susannah’s backstories aren’t just about them as individuals. Oh no, it’s like the secret recipe to their spicy, unpredictable romance. They’re like an untamed mustang and a delicate orchid, a turbulent river and a serene pond, trying to synchronize their rhythms without causing a splash.

But without this high intensity of backstories clashing, the movie wouldn’t have been a success.

Trust issues can throw a wrench in the gears of a romance like no other. They slow down the relationship’s progress, muddle communication, breed insecurity, hinder emotional intimacy, amplify the fear of betrayal, and complicate conflict resolution. Weaving this intricate web into an 80,000 to 90,000-word story takes a lot of patience. It’s like trying to conduct an orchestra while simultaneously playing every instrument. Each word you write has to carefully balance the characters’ vulnerabilities and their journey towards trust. It’s about showing their hesitations, the misunderstandings, the insecurities, and the fear, all while keeping the reader invested in their story. It’s a delicate dance between revealing too much too soon and not revealing enough, keeping the tension taut but not snapping it. In essence, writing a romance with trust issues is like baking a soufflé  – it requires patience, precision, and a whole lot of courage, but when it rises perfectly, it’s a tasty dish worth every tricky step.

As they say, the bigger the challenge, the bigger the reward. And boy, was it gratifying to weave these deep-seated issues into their love stories. It’s like watching a prickly cactus bloom – tough on the outside, but capable of surprising beauty.

Backstories don’t just explain why characters might run a mile at the sight of a pickle or a tree, they also make characters more real. They show us their past victories, their losses, and those defining moments that make them who they are. It’s like getting a sneak peek at their life’s highlight reel. This helps us understand why they act like they do, and just maybe, where they’re headed.

But backstories aren’t just about adding layers to characters, they can also push the plot along. Ever had a past decision come back to bite you? Yeah, characters can have that too. Old enemies, long-lost loves, or that one embarrassing moment from high school can all come back at the most inconvenient times. It’s like the plot is a puzzle and with every piece of the past that’s revealed, the story gets a little more intriguing.

Oh, and then there’s the gooey, mushy center of it all – the feels. Backstories? They’re like a VIP ticket to the grand opera of a character’s life. It’s high drama, tuxedos, and tragic arias all rolled into one. They let us root for our characters, sob into our popcorn, or even shout “What the heck are you thinking?” at our book. It’s like having a backstage pass to all the juicy drama, and trust me, it makes the main event even more of a showstopper.

Now, when it comes to romance, those feels are like the secret ingredient in a love potion. It’s not just about the hearts and flowers. It’s about the stomach-flipping moments of uncertainty, the rush of a first kiss, the sting of a misunderstanding, and oh, the sweet relief of a heartfelt apology. It’s like a perfectly blended cocktail of emotions – a little sweet, a little bitter, and packed with a punch that’ll leave you reeling.

Creating a believable backstory is like having a GPS that guides you through the past or future for your story. It ensures accuracy with historical and science fiction elements, allowing you to blend the real, the plausible, and the otherworldly. This gives your story a more tangible quality, making it all the more believable.

Backstories aren’t merely echoes of a character’s past, something you jot down while plotting the story or something you write to fill an empty page. They are the unseen roots of a tree, grounding our characters in the fertile soil of their past experiences, their trials, and triumphs. For all the aspiring romance writers out there, remember this: every passionate kiss, every tearful goodbye, every stolen glance, is built on the foundation of a well-crafted backstory.

To truly breathe life into your characters, you must understand their past, their heartbreaks, their joy, and their dreams. It’s like unfolding an old, cherished love letter, revealing the depth of emotion and untold stories that shape their present.

So, the next time you create a character, know that their past is your palette, their backstory is your brush, and the canvas of their future is waiting for your touch. Dive deep into their history, for it holds the key to unlocking the richness of their future. After all, a character without a past is like a love story without a heart. Paint it with love, paint it with truth, and watch your stories come alive.

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