I find myself struggling with how much 'past' to reveal. I think a lot of what a character does, their motivations, should be informed by their past and therefore...when being read by an audience, they should to a certain degree figure it out, too. But sometimes that's not always the case, right? I'm not sure how to go about being both informative and clever...and not 'tell' instead of show how the past affects characters.Good question! Backstory is, as I said, the characters' past, and it's important to the reader as it's important to the characters. But we all know that it can be imparted clumsily or adeptly. As you said, it influences what they do and why they do it, so to some degree, it should show in their actions. But how much will the reader get just from the actions?
1. Hmm. Well, first, I think is the question of what backstory should be revealed. Yes, backstory that has influenced the character -- but we're affected presumably by about everything that has happened to us. And we don't want to tell everything.
Relevance, maybe? Coherence? Like the accountant hero might have been made more competitive by seeing his father (an NFL football player- sorry, watching the Bengals-Bills game, and you want to know what's really irrelevant? A Bengals-Bills game) drop the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl. Would you have him think about that, or flash back to that, or talk about that? Would you reveal that? Would it matter what was going on in the book? (For example, what if the story involved football in some way, or his father?)
2. What's backstory and what's just information? I don't mind-- in fact, I crave-- the little bits of information (not necessarily backstory, but sometimes) that tell me what I need to know to understand this early scene-- how these people are related, say. I should be able to tell from their actions if they love each other or hate each other, sure, but are they brothers or cousins? I don't know why so many writers now are withholding something so simple as that-- "His brother Joe..." "Sandy had been her best friend since grade school." That sort of information is just part of the narrative. Just as you'd make clear that this is taking place in downtown Syracuse, you should let me know what Joe knows and Tom knows and everyone in the book knows, that Joe and Tom are brothers. Why make me guess, and more important, why make me wonder if there's some reason that requires them to keep quiet about their relationship? No, just put in "His brother Joe" and be done with it.
What signal do you want to send? Be careful not to send the message that "this is a big secret!" when in fact it's not a secret at all. That's frustrating and distracting for the reader. So what information do you impart? What if it's backstory (too), like "Danny had been her date to the senior prom."
I tend to put in little informative stuff early, but try not to be obnoxious. Hey, there's a rule! "Don't be obnoxious."
3. And when? I think when is important. Backstory revealed early in the book can be a real problem, I know from experience. I'm thinking that if you want to set up a question to be answered later (like "what happened at the senior prom that still traumatizes her so much she can't talk about it?"), you probably don't want to tell too much too early. So if she takes her car to Sullivan's Auto Repair, and as she's driving in, she sees Danny looking all manly and oilstained bending over a Corvette in the garage bay, how do you set up "question about senior prom"? Maybe she turns around and goes to the Midas down the street. That makes the reader ask, "Why did the sight of Danny make her change her plans?" But how much info do you need? That connects Danny to something that bothers her, but doesn't bring out the senior prom thing. What if she had a quick thought as she drove in-- there's Danny Miller. All manly and oilstained. He was her date for the senior prom. No, best not go here? There's a Midas down the street?
How would you handle that? Do you think the reader needs that "senior prom" mention?