Personal back story helps explain why a main character behaves a certain way. If our hero served in a war and has PTSD, then we have to study how this back story can affect him both physically and emotionally. If our heroine was abandoned at an early age by a parent and then again as a young adult by a lover or spouse, then this back story affects how she responds to both external and internal stimuli that reminds him or her of that past pain. We also call this part of character development.
How many of us have read stories where the heroine is traveling and thinking back over her personal history--her family, her family's home and financial situations, grandma's gout, Uncle Harry's love of liquor, the death of the family's dog and her horrible state of affairs of now having to resort to taking a job as a nanny. I do. And I recall my eyes glazing over as I read pages and pages of boring back story.
BACK STORY SHOULD BE ENOUGH TO EDUCATE AND ENTICE US TO READ ON!
Writing a series, something I'm doing now, involves its own type of back story. In fact, I'm weeding though two series--one set in Scotland and one in Florida. Yet elements of back story are important to each to tie every book in the series together. Let's talk about my Scottish bear-shifter series. In book one, I explain how these shifters came to be. So, now in book two, do I bore readers who read the first book by relling the story again? Or do I leave the new readers, who haven't read book one, in the dark? How much back story do I repeat? How much is vital to understanding? I wrote about an ancient Viking curse in book one. Do I mention it in book two? It's created a lot of sleepless nights.
So, once more, I relied on a back story technique I started some time ago. I opened a document and roughly listed all the back story I might want to include. Depending on my mood I might list the back story in bullet points or I might write it all in paragraph form. As I use that part of back story, I either delete it or highlight it.
Next problem, how long do I make the back story insert? When I first started writing, all I heard was editors didn't like to see any back story in the first three chapters. Ouch! Then it changed to NO back story in the first chapter.
Now, let's pause here for a minute, folks. Let's be serious--and damned honest. For me to write a first chapter with zero back story is like my going yard sale shopping in these shoes. It just ain't happenin'. No way. No how.
But my method has taught me how to minimize the amount of back story. For once I eliminate the fluff, I open my trusty thesaurus and write a paragraph, using the strongest, most descriptive words I can find. Sometimes I can write ONE good paragraph of back story. And believe me, when I can write one sentence of back story to sprinkle in among the current story's narration, I am super tickled. For back story is best told in snippets. Not paragraph after paragraph or--God forbid--page after page. Sprinkle it in as needed and in small and powerful amounts.
Here's an example of back story from book one used in book two. I've highlighted it...
Mrs. Munro had traveled from Virginia in the United States to attend her Uncle Angus Iverson’s funeral in March. She’d brought her grown granddaughter Paisley along as her traveling companion and the two had stayed at Matheson Lodge. Gossip was Creighton, the eldest of the Matheson brothers and Laird of his bear-shifting clan, had no sooner set eyes on golden-haired Paisley than he’d laid claim to her. They were married a couple of months later.
To quickly show the heroine and hero of book two have already shared an intimate history, I inserted this bit of back story into a paragraph of the first chapter...
Not that she cared one Scottish whit, for she didna. Not after he’d cast her aside over a year ago to wallow in the memories of the wife he’d lost four years earlier from complications in childbirth. Oh, the man could romance a woman for some physical release, he just couldna move forward and commit.
Now we're starting to hear that some editors want more back story to validate character's behavior. I've not heard it from my editors yet and hope I don't. Even so, my technique will still work. I'll just have to use a heavier hand with my back story. That would figure, though. Just when I perfect a plan that works for me, someone comes along and changes the game. And you know what I keep thinking of? Those long boring pages of narration telling me every minute bit of back story. I can feel my eyes glaze over all ready.