Backstory. The word strikes terror into the hearts of writers learning their trade, but backstory doesn’t always wear a black hat. Longtime RU follower and soon-to-be-published author SONALI DEV shares some insights on backstory that might surprise you.
Wow, you’re all here despite that dreaded word in the title of this post. Backstory. Shudder. Horrors. Yikes. Go ahead, tremble, throw up in terror, then take a breath and come back.
Backstory might have become the rap on the wrist all newbies have learned to fear, what with ‘backstory dump’ being every critic’s handy-dandiest tool. But relax, down this way lies freedom from backstory-phobia.
Let’s start with an easy little exercise.
Try to think of a book you really truly loved. (I told you it was easy)
Is it Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind? Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Ain’t She Sweet? Kristan Higgins’ Waiting On You? Molly O’Keefe’s Crazy Thing Called Love?
I name these because much like all media I have an agenda here and these books are spectacular examples of rich backstory and some of the most unforgettable flashbacks in the genre. But you could come up with any story you absolutely could not put down.
Now think about that favorite character who made that story your favorite story. Can you tell me what the character’s childhood was like?
Woah… Slow down! If only I had enough time to hear those long drawn out descriptions that just rolled off your tongues. It’s almost as though you grew up with these people, right? You KNOW who they are and by God you know who they were. And you stayed up all night to make sure they became who you knew they deserved to become.
Now take away what you know about them as children, as teens. Do you still feel like you know them as intimately? Do you still care what happens to them half as much?
I’ll answer that for you. It’s a resounding ‘No.’
While I’m willing to bet that your favorite romance is not set in the protagonist’s childhood, I assure you that without a goodly dose of character history aka backstory that story you love so much would not be the story you love so much.
Okay, so then why the bad rep? Well, because as in everything else in life, it’s about timing, darling.
The problem isn’t with backstory itself. Readers need backstory. There is no current story without backstory. There is no you and me without where we came from and what we did with where we came from. The problem is with giving all of that good stuff to the reader right in the beginning and all at once. It’s like meeting someone at a party and telling them everything that ever happened to you without letting them get interested in who you are right now first.
So before we go any further let’s get this very important point out of the way. When I say that backstory is the amazing secret sauce that brings your al dente pasta to life, I don’t mean to suggest that you pour it on uncooked pasta. You get that, right? Ground your readers in story first. Then douse them in backstory so they’re unable to leave the table until the entire dish is gone.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s make this interesting. Despite what I’ve said thus far, it’s not the backstory that makes readers unable to set your story down. What makes your precious backstory make your even more precious story shine is the connection between the backstory and your story.
Your characters are not their backstory, your characters are the choices they make because of their backstory, despite it.
The fact that your heroine was an orphan who was beaten by her caretakers is entirely useless if that fact did not cause her to adopt certain beliefs. Like maybe it made her believe that anytime she gives anyone control they will use it to hurt her. Now her backstory matters. But still not enough. The combination of her backstory and her belief is still useless unless this belief born of history is definitively challenged in the process of the story, unless she has to move mountains to get over her belief, unless she loses everything because of it and finds a way to gain it back. It is that search for the courage, the grit to challenge and overcome deep rooted beliefs that constitutes the character arc, and makes the story satisfying and worthy of a sleepless night for the reader.
Characters who make decisions in a vacuum are cardboard. Characters who struggle with decisions because of all that has happened to them thus far are fueled by motivation. Their strength must be proven in the battlefield of your story but the journey to finding that strength from a place of weakness is what makes your readers emotionally invested in their victory.
When we know what it was like to be the character in those most unprotected, unformed moments of youth, even when they do horrid, stupid things, we forgive them because we feel the pain that spurred them to do it. Their courage becomes real to us only when we feel connected to the impossible struggle they have to overcome to set things straight. A struggle we ourselves feel might have defeated us.
In Kristan Higgins’ Waiting On You, Lucas is always that little boy who watched his mother die of a terminal illness, who tried to do everything exactly right so his already suffering father didn’t have one more thing to deal with. Even as a hot, successful man who makes us purr, to us he stays that boy who never got to see the father he loved one last time. For that little boy’s pain we forgive him sleeping with another woman after his very first fight with a heroine we love. Because we know that thanks to his childhood he expects loss, thinks himself deserving of it. And it is a beautiful thing when he struggles long and hard and finally finds the courage to accept that he deserves to keep someone he loves.
In Gone With The Wind, Scarlett makes one seemingly stupid choice after another. She desperately pursues someone we know is terrible for her while pushing away someone who’s perfect. But we dig through that tome over and over to follow her as she has her heart broken. But would we feel the same way about her if the parts in the book where we see her as a little girl hungry for her mother’s attention were taken away, or if we didn’t get to share her child’s mind sensing, knowing her mother’s unhappiness but having no power to fix it? I’ll tell you I wouldn’t. To this day, decades after reading the book, I can smell her mother’s cachet through her nose. And when she struggles with that model of womanhood she craves to emulate but just can’t, all her other struggles matter that much more. And when she finally discovers all the ways in which she already is and all the ways in which she can never be that paragon, her struggles and consequently the story become epic.
Of course, these stories aren’t about these struggles alone, and the authors being the skillful geniuses they are fold just enough past at just to right time to make the present matter, but at no point do they let you, the reader, distance yourself from the past the characters are trying to overcome. And they do it without you ever knowing it’s being done.
As new authors, we can only aspire to that level of skill in execution. But there are a few things we can focus on that might aid us in the planning and help us get there someday:
1) Know who your characters were as children, what they feared, what they revered, what they swore they would or would not become. There is no way to know too much about your characters. My favorite metaphor about character development is that a character is like an iceberg. The reader sees only the tip that sticks out of the ocean, but the writer knows the huge mountain under the ocean that holds that tip up. Your character’s childhood is the very base of that mountain. Please don’t show it all to the reader, but you can’t cheat your way out of building it.
2) Backstory isn’t decoration. Understand how your character’s history created their belief system and how it impacts their decisions today. Goals and motivations that rise from beliefs rooted in backstory give the character and the story relevance and purpose and propel it forward.
3) The story arc is a curve that starts from beliefs rooted in backstory, touching along the way on everything these beliefs take away from the character, and finally ending where the character is able to overcome these beliefs. Throw characters in situations where they have to make choices that challenge and support these beliefs, where they must show courage or cowardice. The more seemingly insurmountable the beliefs, the more satisfying the victory and the more compelling the arc. Map this arc before you start writing.
Oh and if you ever buy that thing people tell you about flashbacks being bad writing, read those books I mentioned earlier in this post and you’ll never shun them again.
Circling back to that exercise, tell me some examples of books where you think the author handled backstory well, where flashbacks hooked you so bad you still dream about them. Let’s talk.
Regular columnist and weapons expert ADAM FIRESTONE is back at RU on Wednesday.
- The Culture of Your Story, Not Just for Multiculturals by Sonali Dev 
- Weekly Lecture Schedule for Monday, June 16 – Friday, June 20, 2014 
- Ask an Editor: Backstory and Pacing 
- Inspiration Hunting in the Publishing World with Sonali Dev 
- Creating Characters Readers Will Love with Rachael Thomas