Backstory: Relevant Information or an Inconsequential Event?

 

by Brenda Hill

 

When we begin a novel, we need to intimately know our characters. We must know their motivations—why they do certain things and what causes them to react to events with warmth or hostility. Otherwise, their strong reactions or nonchalance may seem strange to other people.

So, to prevent our readers from thinking our character is an escapee from the psycho ward, we create backstories for them, inventing histories, naming parents and siblings, all information we hope will bring that character to life on the page. Some writers go into such detail that they fill page after page of character history, even listing grades the character received in school.

Not me.

While I’m a strong believer in plotting my story beforehand, I’m not one who needs to know what day of the week my character washes her hair—unless it’s relevant to the story. That’s the key. Our readers do not need to know every facet of a character’s life—unless that particular facet is an important storyline.

Suppose, for example, I begin a new book and name my main character Lucy. And let’s further suppose I create a northern Minnesota history for her, and after describing her, I want a character trait that other people would consider a bit ‘quirky’ but harmless. While I’m trying to decide what to give her, my husband flips the TV channel to the latest rerun of Arachnophobia, so I decide to give Lucy a strong fear of spiders. She’ll scream and run at the sight of even a harmless garden spider that may have found its way into her apartment or dormitory.

What do I do with that information? I could use it as a comic relief and show this fear as a source of teasing from her friends, but if that’s the case, it’s not very important and isn’t relevant to the story. When you’re writing tight, it should not be included.

But what if I include WHY Lucy’s fear is so strong. Remember, in fiction, we need to show motivations, not only in character conflicts, but we need to know WHY Lucy screams at the sight of a spider. We must remember to be like a child and always ask why, why, why? Why did George slug his brother on graduation night? Why does Lucy have this overwhelming fear of spiders? While most people do not particularly like spiders, most will not go into hysterics when spotting one. So why does Lucy scream and run?

Now we can invent something brilliant, such as a near-fatal black widow spider bite when she was seven. Venomous spiders are rare in Minnesota, but let’s say her parents visited the Twin Cities and bought home a tropical houseplant from Florida, and one of the leafy branches hid this nice, fat, poisonous black spider. Lucy survived the bite, of course, otherwise there wouldn’t be much to the story, but we could create this horrible experience at the hospital and how she was deathly ill.

That event, even though it’s dramatic, is just that—a dramatic event in her history. As with our friends’ and neighbors’ background, we might find the event mildly interesting, but really, who cares? I shouldn’t bore my readers with that bit of backstory—unless it relates to the main plot .

If the plot is about Lucy meeting the love of her life while in graduate school and debating whether or not to marry him and move to another town in Minnesota, then the spider background is not an issue. It’s simply an event that happened in her life that is of no interest to anyone else and shouldn’t be mentioned.

But suppose I want to use it in my story? Suppose I want Lucy to overcome her horror of spiders as part of her character growth? If so, I’d need to invent a storyline where spiders could be an issue.

How about if the love of her life is a young man who thinks the curved tail of a scorpion is fascinating, loves to examine the long, hairy legs of a tarantula, and can’t wait to compare the beautiful red markings of different black widows? Lucy adores him beyond everything, or most everything—she’s repelled by his career choice, which, of course, is Arachnology. He wants to study the creatures and write a book about them, so he plans to move from nice, safe Minnesota and live in the states where their species thrive.

Ah hah! Now we have a possible storyline with the character trait as a main source of conflict.

And to make matters worse, we turn up the heat and say he’s just been offered his dream job as an assistant to the country’s foremost authority on spiders, but only on condition that he immediately accept the position and make the move within the next two weeks. He asks Lucy to marry him and accompany him to his new location.

Lucy now has a dilemma: her fear or her lover? She must make a fast decision, one that could affect her entire life. And readers, if I’ve written the story well enough, will turn the pages to see what she decides. Now I’ve taken a character trait and not only used it in my story, but I’ve used it as a major interest of conflict and built a story around it.

How about traits for your characters? I’m sure you can be more imaginative than the fear of spiders, so list several that are of interest to you. Then explore the conflicts each could trigger. If you can develop a trait and use it to build your story, it’s relevant. The others you can disregard – until the next novel.

 

 

 

Guest post contributed by Brenda Hill. Brenda has authored several novels and her short stories have been published in a national women’s magazine. She’s edited for a small press, held the position of acquiring editor for another, and taught novel writing in two states. Her specialized courses of study included a novel’s structure as well as the opening chapter, pages that determine if an agent, publisher, or even a reader will want to turn those pages. Check her website for free tips on writing, editing, and grammar.

 

8 thoughts on “Backstory: Relevant Information or an Inconsequential Event?

  1. I am curious about whether a line or two of dialogue can do double-duty as backstory glimpse and revealing character. I notice particularly with thrillers that the backstory is not presented as a flashback.

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  2. This is really interesting. I think i have whole swathes written which are back story that sit in another folder now and maybe form another story even.

    I don’t feel it’s a waste of time to know a lot about your characters because for me they become people who then you can get what feels like a real reaction. I suppose it’s the difference between method acting and traditional but on the page. I think you should know your characters and that’s the main thing.

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  3. Quirks that hit right on for the protagonist have proven to be difficult for me. Chances are I just don’t spend enough time developing them. Reading this post has opened my eyes to how impatient I’ve been with this part of the process. Thank you, Brenda.

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  4. Things I like to explore in some of my characters:
    Conflict with children/siblings/parents – why, who’s fault, how they come to the point of forgiveness and moving on.
    Fears, past trauma, having their faith in God challenged and present compelling and hard stuff for them to think about.
    Traits I like to give my characters involve stuff like being a good leader (for the protagonist), caring strongly for others, honesty, dependability (other characters can depend on him/her). For the villains, I like to give them well, evil traits, but try and weave in good traits to make them not straight out black, but slightly gray, to make you care somewhat.

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