The importance of backstory: why you should interrogate your characters before planning a rewrite

Used under Creative Commons. Copyright mcfarlandmo

Last November, I decided to embark on NaNoWriMo for the first time. The experience has taught me a lot about how much can be achieved in a short period of time with sufficient motivation. And how many under-utilised hours and minutes there are in every day, even if it sometimes feels almost impossible to carve out time to write. The pace of the challenge also meant that I was unable to allow myself to edit as I wrote—a habit of mine, and one which meant that my first manuscript took years to complete.

To my surprise, I did achieve my goal of writing 50000 words of a brand new novel, but I’m not sure I’ll be embarking on the NaNoWriMo journey again. I think I need a little more balance in my life, but at least I know how to find the time to write and how quickly the words can accumulate if I do write regularly.

Now, two months later, I’ve finally built up the courage to read my work from November with a view to finishing the first draft. And the read-through has left me with mixed feelings. The story, as it stands, feels like a sketch outline of the work I want it to be, with glimpses of wonder and swathes of ho-hum writing. And the odd flash of cringe-worthy melodrama thrown in. The main problem seems to be one of under-drawn characters.

Before I embarked on NaNoWriMo, I put together a simple scene outline and a one-page character profile for each character. I would love to be more of an outliner, but I’m always so bored by the idea of putting a plan together and inevitably just leap into the writing with a vague idea of where I’m going and stick-drawing profiles of the main characters. I’m neither a planner nor a pantser. I guess you could call me a planster.

As a result, my main character in this manuscript didn’t truly come to life for me until about 48000 words in, when she started to surprise me by refusing to follow the path I had mapped out for her. I was finally getting a feel for who she was, but it was too little, too late. So, now the difficult work begins. Before I can think about making a plan for the rest of the novel, I need to figure out my character backstories and motivations, and go back to the beginning of the story to make the characters more real from the first page.

Many courses and blogs suggest beginning with a character questionnaire or a chart which outlines everything from eye colour to spiritual beliefs and life goals. There are even free printable resources available online. Other exercises I’ve done in the past have included writing a dating profile for the character and doing a job application.

The trouble with all of these exercises, while no doubt useful, is that they seem like a roundabout way to achieve a fundamental understanding of each character in this story. To know them so well that the readers will feel they know them too. In short, a job application for a character isn’t going to help me to figure out why they behave the way they do in this story, and why they would make the specific choices that they make.

So, I’ve decided that I need to write my own focused questions at this stage of the process, when I have a rough, underwritten, unfinished first draft. Questions which help me to understand how each character came to be at every point in the story and why they are behaving in a certain way.

For example, in this story, my main character’s parents are absent from her life, and the protagonist has to endure traumatic life events without their support. In the original version of the story, they are working class and live overseas, but in this modern world of Skype and Go-Fund-Me campaigns, just being short of cash doesn’t explain her parents’ absence from her life. I’ve had to really interrogate the character to come up with a workable backstory that not only explains the parents’ absence, but also goes a long way to providing motivation for many of her other actions and choices. And the whole story will be better for it.

My method is to ask the question, ‘Why?’ of almost every part of the story. Every choice from where the character lives to what career she’s chosen needs to be explained and believable in my head and in my notes. It won’t all necessarily make it into the story, but the characterisation will be richer for the work done. And hopefully the characters will drive the story towards a satisfying conclusion.

As soon as the characters start to act out and refuse to do what I had planned for them,  the magic can—hopefully—begin.






By Lisa Kenway

Lisa Kenway is an Australian writer and doctor. Her debut psychological thriller, ALL YOU TOOK FROM ME, is coming in August 2024 from Transit Lounge Publishing. An early version was long-listed for the 2020 Richell Prize. A 2023 Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre fellow, her work has appeared in Island Online, the Meanjin blog, Meniscus Literary Journal and elsewhere. Find her at or on Twitter @LisaKenway.


  1. This is brilliant. One of the biggest ways I tend to feel inadequate as a writer is that I don’t have much idea of my characters when I start. I’ve tried all the suggested exercises I could get my hands on for building a picture of them beforehand, but inevitably I just wind up staring at a blank page or questionnaire thinking, “But I don’t know the answers yet!”.

    I cannot express how reassuring it is that I’m not the only writer whose characters start vague and develop as they are written! I hadn’t thought about fleshing out my characters further in between the initial draft and the rewrite(s), but after reading this I will certainly give it a try.


    1. Thanks for reading. I’m glad you found the post useful. I’m finding character interrogation a really useful exercise for weeding out parts of the story that don’t make sense and building a more believable and relatable narrative arc.


  2. I did NaNoWriMo one year, and it was a worthwhile exercise, but I don’t know if I would do it again.
    I also don’t like filling in character backstories – job applications, profiles etc before they appear on the page. I may make little notes as I go along if it’s something important that comes to light for a particular character that I need to remember, but I prefer just getting on with the writing and seeing what plays out on the page. This means lots of rewriting, but I’m fine with that. I’ll get better as I go along.


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