Background in a book is the street the character walks down, the car she drives, the clothes he wears, the people met on a daily walk. Everything that the character interacts with is background if it’s not another primary character. It is this description and interaction that makes background, if you’ll pardon the wordplay, the backbone of the story.
Characters are just like a mannequin in a store window without background. There’s no one to interact with, nothing to see, nothing to hear, smell, or sense in any way that can help create a meaningful reaction or experience.
The statement, “Jim walked to the store” gives us a destination but nothing else. What kind of store, how far is it, why is he going there, is this outside or inside, like in a tunnel? We have no idea. There’s just this thing called Jim moving from wherever he was to a store, and that’s it.
But if you write, ‘Jim moved slowly, fearfully down the dank dimly lit alleyway. His small lanky frame covered by a green plastic poncho against the light rain, he shivered with cold and dread as he placed each foot carefully, doing his best to avoid the heaps of loose trash and the sleeping homeless buried inside them.”
That gives us a much more colorful view of the environment and Jim. He’s small, skinny, and is wearing a green poncho. It’s raining, an alleyway that’s filled with piles of litter that homeless people are in the middle of, trying to keep warm and dry.
Nothing is made about smell, but we have a much clearer understanding of Jim and his environment, and some about how he feels being there. The background creates the canvas that Jim can react in and to. The detail, while not as complete as it could be, really conveys the setting and ramps up emotions that the reader can begin to identify with.
Don’t be afraid of detail, but at the same time realize there’s a balance to the background and the characters. If we go on for pages about the background, the character’s story gets lost. Not enough background, and the story is blurred and nonsensical. Let the background detail come out, and use it to help develop the story.