Definition: In film, backstory refers to the events and details of a character’s past that are not directly shown or mentioned in the current storyline. It helps to provide context and depth to the character’s motivations and actions, enhancing the audience’s understanding of the narrative.
This article shows multiple interesting ways backstories can be written and revealed to add depth to your characters and plot.
I’ve also included some examples from famous movies you may know.
How to Write and Use Characters’ Backstories
There are different ways you can write a backstory for your characters without it turning into boring exposition.
Here are some common ways:
- Flashbacks: A character’s past is shown through a sequence of events before the film’s timeline. Flashbacks provide context and insight into a character’s backstory and motivations. See more about flashbacks in film.
- Dialogue: Characters may discuss or reveal information about their past through conversations with other characters. This can be through direct storytelling, sharing memories, or discussing significant events that shaped their lives.
- Visual cues: You can use visual cues to hint at a character’s backstory. This can include photographs, personal belongings, or visual symbols representing events or relationships in a character’s past.
- Voiceover narration: Narration can provide insight into a character’s thoughts, emotions, and past experiences. This technique allows the character to express their backstory to the audience directly. Read more on diegetic sound in film.
- Subtle clues: You can incorporate subtle hints or clues in the background or through small details that viewers can pick up on. These clues may allude to a character’s past or provide subtle foreshadowing to their backstory.
- Non-linear storytelling: In some films, the narrative structure may jump back and forth between different periods. This approach allows the audience to piece together a character’s backstory as the film progresses.
- Character behavior and actions: A character’s behavior and actions can often reveal aspects of their backstory. Past experiences, trauma, or personal history may influence certain actions or reactions.
Ultimately, the method used to reveal a character’s backstory depends on your storytelling style, the film genre, and the specific narrative choices to engage the audience effectively.
Writing a character bio is great for creating compelling backstories for your movie characters.
Examples of how Backstories are used in Movies
Movies use backstories to provide context and depth to the characters and their actions.
They serve multiple purposes:
1. Character Development
Backstories help to establish a character’s history, motivations, and personality traits. They provide insight into the character’s past experiences and help the audience understand why they behave the way they do in the present.
In the movie “The Dark Knight” (2008), the Joker’s backstory is briefly explored through monologues, where the villain reveals glimpses of his past, including his troubled childhood and his scars.
This backstory helps establish his unpredictable and chaotic personality, providing insight into why he behaves the way he does in the present.
2. Audience Engagement
Backstories create a connection between the audience and the characters. When viewers learn about a character’s past struggles, triumphs, or tragedies, they become more invested in the character’s journey and can empathize with their experiences.
In the movie “Forrest Gump” (1994), the main character, Forrest, shares his backstory through narrations and flashbacks. The audience learns about his childhood struggles, friendship with Jenny, and experiences during the Vietnam War.
By understanding Forrest’s past and witnessing the challenges he overcomes, viewers become emotionally invested in his journey, rooting for him and empathizing with his experiences.
3. Plot Development
Backstories often reveal crucial information that drives the plot forward. They can contain key details about a character’s relationships, secrets, or hidden agendas, impacting the story’s events.
In the movie “The Sixth Sense” (1999), the backstory of Dr. Malcolm Crowe, played by Bruce Willis, is crucial for plot development.
As the story unfolds, it is revealed that Dr. Crowe is a ghost and dead throughout the film.
His backstory, including his unresolved issues and guilt, drives the plot forward and adds a new layer of understanding to the unfolding events.
Backstories can be used to foreshadow future events or plot twists. By revealing certain past experiences or traumas, filmmakers can hint at what may happen later in the story, creating anticipation and suspense.
The movie “Inception” (2010) uses backstory to foreshadow the main character Cobb’s emotional conflict and the plot’s twists.
Cobb’s backstory reveals his guilt over his wife’s death, which later becomes a central element in the movie’s narrative.
This backstory foreshadows Cobb’s psychological challenges and their impact on the story’s events.
5. Conflict Resolution
Backstories can contribute to the resolution of conflicts within the movie. By shedding light on a character’s past, filmmakers can help the audience understand their motivations and actions, leading to a resolution or reconciliation between characters.
In the movie “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994), the backstory of Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins, is instrumental in resolving conflicts within the film.
As the audience learns about Andy’s wrongful conviction and his determination to prove his innocence, they gain a deeper understanding of his motivations and actions.
This backstory ultimately leads to Andy escaping prison and resolving his conflict with the corrupt prison system.
Backstories are a narrative tool that helps filmmakers create well-rounded and relatable characters, deepen the plot, and engage the audience emotionally.
It helps to provide context, motivations, and emotional resonance, enhancing the storytelling experience.
When you write backstories and ultimately let them shine through to the audience, ensure that it does not become a boring exposition. Remember, film is a visual medium, so show, don’t tell!
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