Tuesday, February 17, 2015

More thoughts on “backstory”

If you haven’t read Frankie’s post from this past Friday (Finding the Backstory), I suggest you do so now. It very clearly lays out why this is important when you’re writing any sort of fiction.

I have to admit that I am almost obsessed with who my characters are. To my mind, the greatest compliment I can receive from someone who has read my scribblings is “the characters seem so real”. Readers may not always like all my characters (and I’m not referring only to the bad guys), but often my characters have “bad attributes” because, well, everybody has some of those, don’t they? Bad attributes and weaknesses can also inform readers much more and make characters all the more richer and “true”.

It’s my feeling that in order to really understand a character’s responses to stress and what their motivations for doing things are, you must know where they came from. These details are often not meant to be in the book. The backstory about a character might warrant merely a passing mention, or maybe no mention at all, but knowing the backstory can be of the utmost importance to the storyteller. These details are the building blocks of creating real and believable characters.

Whenever I get stalled in a book and quite often before even beginning it, I think about my main characters and often write out little scenes from their lives outside the parameters of my plot requirement. In some cases this has proven to be the salvation of a novel that’s going south on me.

This was especially true with the character of Victoria Morgan in both the novels I wrote about her, oddly more in the second one than the first. For whatever reason (probably because she’s a redhead), I couldn’t get a handle on why she would do certain things and not others. I was stalled for nearly three weeks in the writing of Cemetery of the Nameless for just this reason. I needed Tory to do something for plot reasons, and no matter how I wrote this critical scene, the results felt uncomfortable, unbelievable and awkward. The problem was, I really needed her to do what I was asking. It was as if she was refusing my requests. (Redheads do tend to have very strong opinions and vast amounts of stubbornness.)

Not being able to write is an uncomfortable feeling for an ink-stained wretch like me. So, approaching the end of the third week of writing stasis, I began working on a story of her at the age of eight, having one of her weekly violin lessons. To this day, I can’t tell you why I did that, but as this little vignette took shape, I suddenly realized something about Tory’s make-up as an adult, and that had its genesis in this rather turbulent lesson. Because of what transpired between her and her teacher, the first seeds of doubt about her ability on violin were sown and wormed their way down into Tory’s psyche. It forced her to respond certain ways even though I doubted if she would barely remember what had happened so many years earlier.

All I had to do was tap into that doubt some two decades on in her life and Tory (reluctantly) would do what my story needed her to do. It was suddenly right and believable that she would do something like this. The logjam was broken and the words flowed out.

I now go through this process quite regularly, usually with my protagonists and often my antagonists, but sometimes with minor characters. I may or may not write it down, but I at least think it through. The series I am currently (and sporadically) working on has gone through this process quite extensively. If I’m going to turn out a series of novels about these people, I have to understand them as completely as I can.

It also opens up a a huge source of possibilities for further novels. What happened between this character and his wife to cause their separation and eventual divorce? And more importantly, how does my protagonist feel about this now? It will have nothing to do with the first novel, and probably won’t even be mentioned, but I’m sure it will come up eventually and may even form the basis of a story further down the line. Who knows?

And that’s one of the wonderful things about writing fiction. The act of creation is so much more intense than any other kind of writing. We get to play god as it were. But with awesome power comes awesome responsibility, and the fact that our characters are merely figments of our imaginations doesn’t absolve us from the fact that we must nurture and take care of them, look out for their interests. Backstory is one of the best ways to help us in our quest to write natural and believable characters, and to my mind, that’s the most important thing in what we do in our writing.

There’s too much cardboard in this world as it is. We don’t need to add to it!


Anonymous said...

I liked the post. I like to keep a section of my WIP notebook that has each character's history, sometimes going back to childhood. I add to and refer to the section often because it helps me focus on who the characters are and what motivates them. Most of the information in that section never makes it into the book, but it informs the book. Writing vignettes about their histories would be a very interesting exercise. Great idea! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Rick Blechta said...

I seldom write out character histories, although I do keep the odd note if it's something I think I'm going to want to reference in the course of writing the novel.

It was just by accident that I stumbled upon the technique of actually writing little vignettes/episodes, and I think it works so well because it's more up close and personal. It also is easier to "feel" the psychological effects of what's taking place. If I just write a note about that, it's just not the same.

Maybe my subconscious was just trying to relay some information when I first did one of these. Heaven knows I was frustrated beyond belief that I couldn't make things work in my novel.

Odd how these things happen...

Thanks for weighing in!

Eileen Goudge said...

This is useful methodology, Rick. Like you, I've learned to go with my gut when something doesn't feel right. I don't always know why until I think it through, or sketch out a back story. Usually this occurs in my head. Recently I've discovered that if I lie on the bed with my head hanging over the mattress--recommended by a chiropractor I've been seeing--the thoughts flow freer. Don't know why. Maybe cause I'm staring up at the ceiling. No distractions. Interesting. Just thought I'd share that.

Rick Blechta said...

And writers are lying down all over the planet...


Eileen Goudge said...

Always wanted to be a trendsetter.