Jeannie Campbell

Jeannie Campbell is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. She is Head of Clinical Services for a large non-profit and enjoys working mainly with children and couples. She has a Masters of Divinity in Psychology and Counseling and bachelors degrees in both psychology and journalism. Jeannie started doing character therapy in March of 2009. Her Treatment Tuesdays feature assessments of fictional characters and plot feasibility while her Thursday Therapeutic Thoughts take a psychological topic and make it relevant to writers. She can be found at her blog, The Character Therapist, at, and website at, The Character Therapist, at

Manipulating Your Readers with Backstory

I’d like to start with a story from my day job.

It was around 10:30, and I had just received the nebulous news from a potential client that she wanted to “talk to me.”

“Okay,” I said, and scheduled her in for 2:00.

I must admit that I was curious. I’d seen her walk by my office several times, peeking in my window, giving me a hesitant smile.

What does she want to talk to me about? I frequently fantasize about what brings clients to my office, and this woman proved no exception. Was she cheating on her husband? Secretly doing drugs? Addicted to gambling? Unable to deal with her children?

Over lunch, I overheard two staff members talking about this very woman. I leaned in closer, eager for any little tidbits I could glean before my session with her. What I heard was a game changer.

“Did you know XXX is a cross-dresser?”


“Yep. Goatee and all.”

Though I said nothing, my line of thought was in sync with my coworkers. I left the table thinking, “Oh my. She’s going to want to talk to me about cross-dressing and the likely havoc this is causing in her marriage.”

I’ll skip telling you about my anxiety at not having any therapeutic experience in this area at the time and get to the part where she walks into my office at 2:00 on the dot, no goatee in sight. We did the usual getting-to-know-each-other dance, and then she got down to the nitty-gritty:

Toilet training.

As she talked about the troubles she was having getting her youngest daughter trained, I sat there and thought: “She’s a cross-dresser. She’s a cross-dresser. Why isn’t she bringing up the fact that she’s a cross-dresser?”

She left, a few star charts and stickers in hand, grinning and thanking me, having said nothing about the covert knowledge I had of her cross-dressing hobby.

Why tell this story? It’s a great exercise in the use of backstory. What should authors take into account before dropping backstory?

1) Purpose

There should be no accidents in fiction. In my story, I received premature backstory that colored my perception of my client. Its purpose was shock value (though my coworkers knew this not). In therapy, this is not a good thing.

But in fiction, this could be exactly what your particular story needs. JK Rowling is famous for having new characters introduced by others in a negative light, which taints that character in the reader’s mind—but she does it on purpose. Preconceived notions can be hard to overcome but powerful when done right.

2) Authorial Control

When dropping in bits and pieces of backstory, do it with calculated accuracy not clumsy abandon. If you are trying to manipulate your readers up front, be deliberate with how you reveal the backstory. Timing is key, as is pacing and level of reader connection. We can set up great moments of truth by pondering how best to use these three components of authorial control.

3) Genre/Content

In the case of my cross-dresser, that information is so controversial and dynamic that if given at the beginning of a romance book, readers probably would put it down, being turned off by the subject matter, which is out of place for the genre; however, if the book is suspense/thriller and my villain turns out to be a cross-dresser, this would not only add to his psychological profile, but it would likely pique reader interest, and it is certainly not outside the realm of expectation for that genre.

Hopefully I’ve given you something to chew on that will help flesh out your considerations for hinting at backstory. Now I challenge you to go the rest of the day and not think about my cross-dressing client with potty-training concerns.


The Character Thrapist