Earlier in this blog, I discuss prewriting and how this critical, yet much maligned, step in the writing process can save the serious writer serious time. Drafting a novel without a well constructed outline is like driving cross country without a map. While you may eventually reach your destination, chances are the trip will involve unnecessary side trips and back tracking, all big time wasters. And at the risk of stretching the analogy to the breaking point, your vehicle--the finished manuscript--will likely arrive in rough shape, needing hours of clean up and maintenance to get it road worthy enough to present to an agent. Who has that kind of time to waste? Not us.
But before we move on, we need to confront another form of prewriting of equal importance to the fiction author, and that is backstory. Hold on, you protest. Surely writing any text not destined for the published page is the definition of wasting time? Give me one good reason why I should bother.
You want one reason? I will give you three. First, nothing wastes more time than having to scrap a scene because a character did or said something out of character. I speak from sad experience. Many an irrelevant conversation, lovingly written, has hit the circular file because it made no sense in the context of my novel and its inhabitants.
Equally frustrating is finding yourself staring at the blinking cursor as you try to decide what your character would or would not do in a given situation. If you’ve got her backstory written, you will know what she’ll do next.
Finally, good backstory actually helps to shape and drive your plot. Use your characters’ past traumas, desires, and hidden talents to mold the story they’re walking through. If you’ve put in the time to create interesting, believable pasts, your story will fly onto the page.
Say you have two main characters, Rebecca and Felix, who are going to interact throughout your novel. If you want to introduce some tension and conflict, you could simply have these two declare that they don’t like one another. That’s going to land pretty flat, an interpersonal dynamic with no reason and thus, with nowhere to go. WHY don’t they get along? Maybe you decide that Rebecca thinks Felix is arrogant. You’ve now added a layer that will inform how she reacts to what he’s saying or doing.
But don’t stop there. WHY does Rebecca think that? And why is Felix acting in an arrogant manner? If you don’t answer those questions in advance, two things can happen, and both of them are bad.
First, if you don’t know why, you won’t have authentic reactions and responses that develop consistently through the story. Characters, and the relationships between them, need to develop and grow authentically in order to engage the reader.
Second, without a beginning and a middle, you won’t find a satisfactory end. Where do these two end up at the end of the novel? Still hating one another? Boring. Discovering truths about one another that helps them move past their animosity? Much, much better, and loaded with plot-building possibilities.
How much more interesting it all becomes if, say, Felix reminds Rebecca of her abusive stepfather. Naturally she becomes defensive when Felix gets bossy. And perhaps Felix is insecure about working with a woman because his last boss sexually harassed him right out of a major promotion. This past experience now causes him to overcompensate with strong women, figuring that the best defense is a good offense.
With a handful of carefully placed glimpses into Rebecca’s and Felix’s pasts, you now have that rich three dimensional landscape, an interesting and detailed interpersonal dynamic that will drive every conversation, every reflection, every choice these two make as they get to know one another, work together and slowly overcome their initial prejudices. So in the final chapter, we have true character development that both drives, and is driven by, character backstory.
Did you say “carefully placed?” Can’t we just explain all that stuff up front, sort of the “once upon a time” approach? Get it out of the way? You could do that, but that method, the dreaded “information dump”, is rarely successful. Modern readers demand engagement from page one. If you start your story by laying out the history of people they don’t yet care about, you’re going to lose them.
I could write reams on how to incorporate backstory into a narrative, but that’s not what this blog is about. Besides, many others have already done so: Google “backstory” and see what you find. Short answer: strike a balance between dialogue, flashbacks and straight exposition.
What I do want to share are my ABC’s of how to create character backstory as efficiently as possible.
A. Start with the 5 W’s. Remember your writing wall? It’s time to break out those sticky notes, friend. Start a column for each of your most important characters and begin filling in stickies with each person’s who/what/when/where/how/why. Single words or short phrases are best at this stage.
You can and will return to this process often. It’s an excellent activity for times when you only have a short writing time window. (Writer’s tip: keep a pack of stickies in your purse, your car, your kitchen drawer. Felix once punched out a bully? Capture that moment in all its glory before you get distracted.)
B. Decide which of those tidbits are relevant to your story. If you’re writing romance, you need to consider sexual orientation, personal insecurities, perhaps cultural norms and pressures. Show your reader these details with a tale of first love or wrenching past heartbreak. If you’re writing a thriller or paranormal, give the reader a glimpse of how your character might deal with the impending crisis in your novel. Do this by relating how she dealt with a similar past event, maybe one that didn’t go quite as planned. Those elements of backstory, if you’ve been thoughtful about them, will both guide your plotting and help create a story with depth and genuine human interactions.
C. Keep backstory lean and mean. If a detail doesn’t impact your story in a significant way, cut it. Do we need to know that Rebecca’s favorite flavor is chocolate? Perhaps, if Felix calls a truce at a critical juncture by gifting her with a pint of fudge ripple ice cream.
Even if you create backstory that you don’t explicitly spell out for your reader, it doesn’t mean you can’t let it add shade and nuance to the character. Because I’m writing a series, I’ve written and added to extensive backstories for many of my folks, a lot of which I haven’t yet directly included in a novel. Yet. However, I’ve dropped hints and allowed those hidden facts to direct characters’ actions and reactions, and even to nudge my plots in certain places. When the reveal comes, my readers get a major “aha” moment!
Invest the time in creating quality backstory. If you do, you’ll have developed a stockpile of potential future plot points and character details that will help make your future writing time efficient and productive. Plus, you’ll achieve an end result that leaves your readers feeling that they’ve met characters they can believe in. Isn’t that outcome worth your time?
I am a writer and teacher of writing. After a lifetime of attempting to squeeze writing into my busy life as wife, mother, Scout leader, teacher, and far too many additional hats to list here, I have achieved my dream of being published and becoming a 'real writer'. How did I find the time? In this blog I'll share some of my strategies for having it all--and still getting dinner on the table by six.