Creating an establishing character is easily one of the hardest aspects of writing fiction. Getting an audience to care about your characters and their plights is tough work, but it is important if you want them to stick around to find out what happens.
One important thing to remember is that people don’t exist in a vacuum. For example, you see an old lady on the bus—she doesn’t exist solely for this bus journey. She has a life, a reason to be there, thoughts and feelings that affect the way she experiences that journey. Your novel is the bus journey, the old lady your main character.
So why is she on the bus? Maybe she’s travelling to the hospice, where the last of her friends is currently receiving care. As she’s gazing out the window, maybe she’s in awe of how the world has changed since they were young, and similarly imagining how they used to play together on these streets. Maybe she’s dreading the conversations coming up; an awkward and uncomfortable truth might be on the tip of her tongue. “I know about you and Phil,” she’s considering saying. She’s mapping out the conversation in her head, like you and I would. Picturing her friend’s reaction. “But I’ve forgiven you. Don’t you fret.”
Backstories are a tool in writing, and like any tool they need to be practiced before being wielded properly. The issue that many writers face in today’s world is that audiences have preferences, as well as past experiences that shape them. There are authors today, well-established ones and award-winning ones, who struggle with breaking through trust-issues that audiences have developed through the years—all of which can be blamed on misuse of writing tools. Backstories are no exception, with audiences regularly ‘zoning out’ of books the moment they realise they’re reading one, and many reviews saying they feel ‘short-changed’…so what gives?
Well, as with any writing dilemma, there are multiple, layered reasons. The main issue is this: trust.
Any writing technique can become subject to misuse, and repeated misuse can result in readers becoming put off by any signs of it being used again. This includes backstory. A backstory chapter shouldn’t feel tacked on, and an author should be particularly sensitive to when the chapter should crop up within the novel. For many readers, if the flow is good, may feel it is jarring to suddenly have a flashback thrown at them, with a different mood and pace to what they were immersed in. Too much of this, the reader starts to expect this every time they find themselves in flashbacks.
This leads me onto writing backstories—try not to think of them as backstories. Try not to think of them as flashbacks or segments inter-laced within the plot. Think of them parallel plots, of two stories that are designed to marry into each other.
For example, V. E. Schwab’s Vicious has two main timeframes: the main ‘current’ thread of the narrative that follows Victor leaving prison, and the secondary ‘Ten Years Ago’ thread. Schwab sets the readers up perfectly for this as it starts with Victor digging up a grave with a little girl and an ex-con. The reader, by this point, should be eager to know why he was in prison, how he got there, who the people are with him and why he is grave-robbing. ‘Ten Years Ago’ slowly answers the first question, while also submerging you into Victor’s world, his psychology and his obsessions. It is designed to make the reader want to know what went so horribly wrong, while also making them invested in the ‘current’ thread and Victor’s retribution.
The ‘Ten Years Ago’ thread of the narrative is as rich and as well thought out as the ‘current’, clearly designed as a labour of love. It is handled with the same care and attention as the changes in POV—because they are. Victor was not the same person ten years ago as the one digging up that grave, and reading through the backstory helps explain how.
Not all backstories are handled like this, unfortunately. Some characters have their stories handled as an info-dump, or as sloppily as one might expect from an author told by their editor to add one.
The easiest way to create backstory is to jot down the character’s life—right from the beginning. Choose specific, defining moments, such as Jorg Ancrath’s in The Prince of Thorns, whose relationship with his father is important to his drive throughout the book, and therefore key moments in his flashbacks revolved around his father’s attitude, behaviours and actions, and these were during crucial moments in Jorg’s life and shaped his understanding of the world.
Your character may be competitive, but a defining moment in their past could have shaped that. They may have a ‘do or die’ moment that ripples throughout their decision making thereafter; seeing that moment in action could help the reader relate to them, even when they are being impossibly stubborn or reckless. The Cruel Prince by Holly Black has three moments in Jude’s life that she bullet-points as being extremely important in her decision making, though one could argue that flashbacks to those moments could have served better, as to bring the reader into the emotional impact and the trauma they caused. Three bullet-points run the risk of being forgotten or over-looked as they are telling rather than showing, or seen as an after-thought (though the narrator does introduce them as such), risking the audience to forget and repeatedly saying ‘Oh yeah, that thing happened…’ as they read on, lessening the impact of the information, and possibly dampening the reader’s understanding of the character’s motivations.
Write these moments as though they are the current plot. Do not treat them as exposition dumps, or even as a chore. There should be as much enthusiasm in writing the backstory as there is to writing the main plot because it is the main plot. This is a great opportunity to show instead of tell. If you were to tell, what would the point of the backstory be? You could drop this information in dialogue and move on. No, a backstory is for showing and immersing the reader in the character’s life. It can be used to explain how the plot really started, the unavoidable actions that lead into the main thread.
It should be noted that V. E. Schwab’s Vicious and Mark Lawrence’s The Broken Empire are both fairly unique in their use of backstory; extremes of the use of flashback. If you have no intention of writing flashbacks frequently within your novel, then it may be wise to keep them brief, succinct and to the point.
Once you’ve written the backstory, make sure it all adds up, that the tone and language is consistent. Polish it and take great care with deciding when it is appropriate to introduce the information you’re about to present. You may decide you want to build up to a reveal in the character’s past and only drop in segments. For example, in Brandon Sanderson’s The Final Empire, the long ago past is revealed to the reader through short diary entries at the beginning of chapters. At first they seem innocuous, but they very slowly reveal truths that play into the final arc beautifully.
Or you may decide to introduce it in the prologue, which can be found in Holly Black’s the Cruel Prince as well as Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. These two are different in their approaches, as the former relies on showing and the latter on telling, but each get their message across. In regards to David Copperfield, the use of language is particularly helpful in keeping the reader engaged.
Another way to effectively tell is via dialogue, which, if done appropriately, can avoid feeling like an information dump, and instead like a character moment. Characters bonding over past mistakes, traumas or seemingly innocuous moments can be very effective in demonstrating character development, whilst also dropping in tidbit hints for the reader to subconsciously digest—or outright plot twists.
And finally, if one is wading through exposition and backstory from the word go, it may be worth looking at whether it should either run parallel, or whether the novel should use it as a starting point. It would remove the flashback element, and instead rely on appropriate time skips into the later years.
There are many options available to an author. This example list is not exhaustive, and it is up to you as an author to work out which is best for your novel, so don’t be afraid to experiment.
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© 2018 Lannah Marshall
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.