If you were to describe what you did today and why you did it; how much of your personal history would you reveal?
-Who did you talk to on the phone? Why? What was your relationship to that person or persons?
-Where did you go? Why? Are the reasons linked to your past?
-What did you eat? Where? Do your food choices have links to your history?
Even in the simple telling of your day; You are your history. Your back story explains, describes, and defines even your most basic of choices.
Now, imagine creating a fictional character and having to create their back story too. A lifetime of experiences, relationships and preferences have to be created in order to offer a reader a three dimensional person, instead of a flat caricature.
I, like a lot of writers often want to offer my reader too much of this sort of information. I want my readers to know and love the people I write about as much as I do. Non-fictional writers have less of a struggle with this concept, because they are dealing with real people not invented ones. Even in non-fiction though, the reader doesn't want or need all the details.
One of the best pieces of advice I was given while struggling with the back story on my urban fantasy is applicable to all writers, fiction and non-fiction alike.
-Don't write what the author wants the reader to know. Write what the character wants to say.
This may seem fairly simple. Perhaps you shrug your shoulders and say "Sure...Of course," but think about it.
Unless your characters are all as talkative, or as reticent as you are, the separation between your voice and the character's is vastly different.
Keeping the writers voice separate from the character's is a good way to gauge if the back story is too much. I want to fill my reader in on every last detail, because I forget. Telling the story needs to progress forward, not backward. the details from the past that are necessary will come about in the natural progression of your story. Trust your reader to invest in your flawed, incomplete character until they can get their answers. If the story is good they will stick with it. If you give away all the history, there is no reason to keep reading.
The balance between back story and forward progression is a fine art that takes practice and patience. luckily writers have plenty of time for that.Right?
Before you get discouraged and throw your hands in the air, there are lots of great places to go and learn more about the art of back story. The following articles were helpful in understanding what role back story plays in writing and helpful hints on how to weave a seamless back story into a piece of fiction.
I wish I could claim to have mastered this skill. I would like to tell a great story with the perfect amount of detail being released at the most important times. Unfortunately, like life in general. I am always learning and re-learning how to be a better writer.
If you've got good advice for back story bozo's like me. I would love your helpful hints. Just know I will take it with a grain of salt until I try it. After all, I am the direct result of my history.