When my great-grandfather emigrated from Ukraine to the United States in the mid-19th century, he did so on a set of papers with someone else’s name on them—a name my family still has today. Those same papers went right back to his little village in Ukraine and the following year his younger brother used the same papers to join my great-grandfather in Philadelphia, where he’d settled and was working in construction. Years later, when I was a child, I asked my grandfather about his father and why he came to the U.S.

“You know, Merry, I asked him what it was like in his village, and do you know what he told me?” my grandfather said, leaning toward me over the top of his mandolin that he’d been playing. His light blue eyes sparkled with humor and his lips curved up into a smile from under his thick, white mustache.

“What, Poppop?” I asked.

“He said, ‘If it was so great, would I have come here?’” My grandfather chuckled and then went back to picking out a tune on his instrument.

As I sit here today in my comfortable home almost a hundred years after my great-grandfather died, fifty since my grandfather passed, and barely six months since my own father—his son’s death, I love thinking about my family, their history, and how fascinating I found my grandfather.

However, while you, dear reader, may find my little story cute, you’re probably also wondering what it’s got to do with writing fiction. The answer is…


Yes, my story is entertaining and now you know more about the history of my family, but where is the relevancy? Why would I tell you this unless it had something to do with the rest of my story—or in this case, blog?

Well, in truth, it does have something to do with this blog because this is about relevancy in your story.

We are writers. We are inherently extremely creative people. When we see someone or create a new character, we immediately create an entire story about them—where they came from, what they do, who they love. But does your reader need to know all that?

Granted, they do need to know some of it. Perhaps, eventually, by the end of the story, they may need to know all of it. But when we first meet that person, must you tell us everything right up front?

It should be clear to you that the answer to that is no. Just as when I meet a person for the first time in real life, I don’t tell them the story of how my great-grandfather came to the United States or why—not unless I speaking to someone who is Ukrainian and then I don’t tell them the entire story, I merely say, “Oh, my family is from Ukraine as well!” They’ll smile, nod and ask where in the country they came from, and I’ll be stumped because my grandfather never told me that minor detail. But they don’t care why my grandfather came or what he thought of the village he came from. Maybe someday, after I’ve know the person after a few years, I might tell them that story about my grandfather, but it’s certainly not necessary for me to share so much so soon after we’ve met.

Likewise, soon after we meet a character in your story, we don’t need to know their entire backstory. You don’t need to tell us where they grew up and whether they came from a loving family—unless it is absolutely relevant to the story at that point. In fact, we never need to know that information, again, unless it is relevant. If the character has a hard time trusting people and letting others into her life because her father told her he was going out to the market and then never returned, that’s relevant and we will eventually need to know that. But not right away. Not until the hero becomes so annoyed with the heroine because she doesn’t trust him and won’t allow herself to love him for fear that he will leave her the way her father did.

You, the author, however, do need to know that the heroine’s father left her. You do need to know that she’s never had a deep, meaningful relationship since then. You need to know all of this about your character because it colors the way they act, what they say, and how they view the world and others in it—with suspicion. So, yes, go ahead and write that detailed backstory for your characters. Revel in the joy of knowing your characters inside and out and knowing that you have created an interesting, complex real person (or at least as real as a fictional character can get). Just don’t share all that detail with your readers—unless they need to know it.

Oh! Did I tell you about my mother’s mother? She came from….