THE DREADED BACKSTORY
Ask a novelist one thing they hate about writing and they will probably list “backstory” as pretty high up on the list. Sometimes we’ve taken great pains (and weeks and weeks of research) to create an amazing world and populate it with a multitude of persons, creatures, warring factions, pious religions, and every sort of thing in between. It’s tempting to dump as much of this on our readers as we can, all at once, preferably at the beginning of the story. It’s also a good way to lose your readers within the first page.
Most writers are told to “show don’t tell” and since it’s difficult to convey things like backstory without pages and pages of telling them how things are, one preferred method is through dialog. Most readers don’t want to sit through a long exposition about where and how each character lived prior to beginning their careers as a part of your novel, so one good way to bring out their history is through discussions with other characters.
Ideally, backstory is revealed gradually and dialog is an excellent vehicle for doling out information piecemeal. This allows the reader to put your character together as though collecting bits of a puzzle. Sometimes we don’t even know what the character looks like until it’s handed to us through some sort of dialog. It can be difficult for the POV character to convey self-description, but fairly easy to utilize others. “Gross, now I have your blond hairs stuck to my comb,” one character can say, or they can latch onto your POV character’s arm and make a quip about their bulky muscles (or lack thereof).
It can be tough to use dialog to give away backstory without it becoming just as boring as a block of text. A long, rambling discussion about the political history of warring factions can have your reader skipping pages or shutting the book for good. However, a rollicking argument will have the reader eagerly reading ahead to find out exactly why one character “expected that sort of crass behavior from a dirty carpet-seller from Pugnasia” or why a Summoned demon was ignoring the wizard and ransacking the house for liquor.
If time permits, your characters should reveal snippets of backstory during multiple scenes, giving away only what is vital and holding the remainder back for later revelation. A personal chosen method is to have one character reveal something interesting to another character, which can pique the curiosity of the reader to learn more.
One of my favorite series contains an amazing method of revealing backstory as the main character wakes up in a hospital bed with amnesia. As he knows very little about himself, we are pulled along for the ride as he learns random tidbits from others and pieces together his past using only dialog and observation.
However you choose to do it, always remember one thing: if you are bored writing it, your readers will be bored reading it. Try to come up with interesting ways to reveal the dreaded backstory.