Contrary to what a lot of writing guides tell us we can build a story without building the backstory first. Some writers are planners and even if a writer is they can’t always think of all the possible relevant information before they begin a story. Sometimes to find out why a character is doing what they’re doing we have to work out what they’re doing in the present.
Our backstory can begin with something as simple as ‘in this first scene they’re buying a coffee’. This might not seem like much but we already know our character likes coffee. If they’re buying coffee in that scene then we’ll discover their coffee order too ‘they buy a latte with a shot of caramel’. Here we discover our character likes something sweet in their coffee, do they have a latte with milk or a dairy free equivalent? With this choice we reveal something else about a character which could be a matter of personal taste, or they’re on some kind of diet perhaps, or they’re lactose intolerant. In one moment we’ve discovered things about the character without having to dig into their backstory but this is still part of their backstory. We don’t have to say ‘they ordered soya milk because they’re lactose intolerant’ it’s implied and can be discussed or shown more later on in the story if we want. If they’re on a diet we could have them considering how much they miss full-fat milk but at the same time we’ve implied they’re not sticking that rigorously to the diet because they’ve had a shot of caramel, thus implying other things about the character’s attitude.
We often think of backstory as events in a character’s past but if we consider it more simply then backstory is a series of choices that leads the character to this moment. A choice of coffee might seem a small thing and it can be, we don’t need to justify their choice of coffee with a backstory about a beloved relative introducing them to this coffee. This is the character’s choice of coffee informed by who the character is therefore their choice of coffee is part of their backstory.
Perhaps in this scene they meet another character because they both ordered a latte but they ordered it with different syrup shots and meet when they got to the barista to say their coffee is wrong. This immediately makes their choice of coffee more conspicuously important because if they didn’t have their latte with caramel shot they wouldn’t have gone to the counter because the drinks mix-up might not have happened.
While they’re complaining about the coffee we also discover more about the character because we see how they complain, whether they’re aggressive, reasonable, or shy. All these moments in the present are helping us build our character’s backstory without us necessarily writing pages of notes on them and what they like and dislike and their past history.
It’s important to remember that simply because planning helps some people it doesn’t mean it will help everyone. And we’re revealing things about the character with everything they say and do, not only when we’re telling the reader about them.