Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Coherence in backstory

More about backstory--

We know we need it, so make it work. Part of the problem is that "layered-on" backstory (that which is meant to make the reader feel sorry for the character or understand some motivation) often ends up just being contrived-- the rivets are showing, and the reader can feel the extraneousness of it. "Right, right, she was orphaned and we're supposed to feel sorry for her. Got it."

One way to counteract this is to make the backstory congruent with something in the present time. This is probably pretty basic, but I'm going to say it anyway! The purpose of backstory is to show how the past affects this character in the present. That is, a child who was orphaned (parents died) is likely to have abandonment issues as she grows up, and this might mean that she is reluctant to fully give her heart to a lover-- she knows how cruel fate can be, ripping him from her just as fate ripped her parents from her.

But notice that her abandonment issues will be different from those experienced by a man whose parents -deserted- him in childhood. That boy-grown-man is likely to distrust PEOPLE, not FATE. So he's not worried that this loving person will be ripped from him; he assumes that this person doesn't really love him and will leave. (And maybe that there's something wrong with him that makes people leave him.)

This makes the character and backstory work together for coherence. But the coherence requires us as writers taking the backstory we invent seriously, and imagining what it would REALLY cause in this particular person. That is, stop thinking of it as "backstory" and start thinking of it as "her/his past".

Other examples? Hmm. In romance, often the heroine is recently divorced, and it seems to me the cause of divorce is as important as the fact of divorce. Too often, I think, the writer misses an opportunity here, presenting the cause as something generic (usually the husband cheats on her, often with someone close to her-- a best friend, her sister?). That double-betrayal OUGHT to cause a particular kind of trust issue, but usually the character is shown to end up with a sort of generalized aversion to men. (Actually, many real women in that circumstance would end up far more wary of getting close to another woman, as the betrayal by the friend/sister might seem the greater.) Anyway, I say this is a missed opportunity, because in settling for the generic backstory (and yes, take it from me, it's pretty generic), the author loses the chance for coherence, the sort of connectivity of past and present that make this character seem real to the reader.

For example, hmm. Let's say that you want your heroine to feel ambivalent about her brilliance or talent. This is especially true in the past. A woman with great artistic talent or scientific brilliance in, well, just about anytime before 1980 (and even now, alas) might worry that this would make a man feel inadequate, or spotlight her as "weird" in society. So if you set it up that she is divorced, don't go with a generic "can't trust men" sort of divorce-backstory. Make it particular to this story and this character. The husband couldn't deal with her greater talent or success or intelligence. She won some big prize or grant, and that was when he chose to leave, because he couldn't take her greater ability. That would make "success" a real danger to her, as it led directly to her loss of her husband.

But also notice that it would make her suspect that even someone who loves her is unlikely to accept her as she truly is (brilliant or artistic or obsessed with something), and in fact that what she might consider the best aspect of her is precisely what would scare men off.

Much more coherent than just a generic "can't trust men" backstory connection, because here, it's not just that she can't trust men-- she can't trust her self, her true self. And of course it sets up for the eventual resolution, that the one man who can accept and love her talent and brilliance is the hero. It also, notice, sets up events where the talent and brilliance come into play in the plot, which makes her active (using her skills) but also creates conflict (if she has learned to hide these skills and now has to show them, not knowing what the hero's reaction will be, but expecting the worst, because of the divorce-cause already established in backstory).

Other examples? We should just keep in mind: Backstory might be just a writing element to us, but to our characters, it's their PAST.



Martina Boone said...

Great post. I love this: The purpose of backstory is to show how the past affects this character in the present.

But ideally, how the character reacts as a result should also affect the story, shouldn't it?


C.L. Gray said...

I love Tale of Two Cities and especially the character of Sidney Carton. I think he's one of the greatest literary characters ever penned.

Carton arrives on the scene fully developed. He's careless in his attitudes, career, and appearance. He is a brilliant man. He is an alcoholic. More importantly, he has given up on himself.

Carton loves Lucie Manette but doesn't think he's worthy of being loved. He loves her from afar, but gives his life for her happiness.

Something has happened to Carton, but Dickens never tells us what it is. Dickens seems to think its not important to his story or to the reader.

When I first read the book, Carton's backstory wasn't important. But in my repeated readings, as I really grew to like this character, the lack of backstory bothered me. I wish I knew why Carton didn't make an attempt to better his life. He certainly had the intellect to do so, the loyalty to friends, and the abiity to love deeply.

I'm not going to criticize Dickens, but I do wish I knew why Carton was the way he was.

Jordan said...

I totally agree! I've been thinking a lot about backstory lately (and have done two blog series on it), and I really wish people would stop using backstory as a crutch to try to force me feel sympathy (or just pity) for the character. All writing is manipulation, I guess, but like you said, "the rivets are showing, and the reader can feel the extraneousness of it." And I, personally, resent it as a reader.

Jami Gold said...

Great post!

I've heard the phrase - backstory should be organic - and it think it means something very similar to your idea: Backstory is just the character's past.

Backstory should be mentioned only when it informs something about the present - because it's still affecting them today.

I understand the concept, so I just hope that I'm doing it right. :)

Clare K. R. Miller said...

Fantastic post. Every writer should read this.

And I'm totally going to use that "rivets" metaphor in the future when I'm trying to explain my writing pet peeves...

alicia said...

CL, the end of Tale of Two Cities (Sidney in the cart) is about the greatest tearjerking scene in the canon. Whoa.

Yes, you're right to mention it, Martina, this should affect the rest of the plot too-- another way of making it coherent.

alicia said...

Jordan, I just recommended your blog post about Vogler's series. :)

Jessica Silva said...

This is a really good point, but I find myself struggling with how much 'past' to reveal. I think a lot of what a character does, their motivations, should be informed by their past and therefore...when being read by an audience, they should to a certain degree figure it out, too. But sometimes that's not always the case, right? I'm not sure how to go about being both informative and clever...and not 'tell' instead of show how the past affects characters.

gj said...

I have a lot of trouble figuring out my protagonist's backstory, and I'd like to think it's because I want there to be no rivets at all, so I brood over it for ages.

A process I've been experimenting with recently is to write short stories about the protagonist, set in her past, because the way I get to really understand a character is by putting her into a situation where I can see her act. So, if I know she has a certain trait, I can put her in some past situation that will test that trait, and see what happens.

There's a bit of chicken-and-egg with this, in that I still need to know stuff before the short story that was before the novel. But I'm finding out all sorts of things about the protagonist that I would never have welded on to her in the main novel.

Edittorrent said...

I don't know, Jessica. I actually think "when" is the most important consideration. When do you tell your readers the backstory? Hmm. I'll foreblog this and we'll discuss. :)

gj, I love your idea of writing short stories that reveal the character's past. Hmm. I'm thinking of a website-- download the book here, and here are the "special features" like on a DVD, the short stories. Very cool.

Jordan said...

(Just happened back through these comments and wanted to say thanks for the recommendation, Alicia!)