character arc 6: Backstory

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I’ve had a brilliant weekend away and am now all fired up to write. However, writing involves starting a new story, and I’m a little bit scared of that, so instead I’ll answer another question about character. 🙂

Lizzie asked:
My particular problem is: I know my characters pretty well, but when and how do I drip feed their background into the novel without overwhelming the reader with TMI. Yet at the same time let the reader know enough about the character to care about them and understand their motivation ?

Ah. Backstory. Backstory is an eternal dilemma. You’ve figured out everything there is to know about your character, and why she is the way she is, and you want your reader to know it, too. But at the same time, you want your story to go forward.

I don’t have a definite answer for this one, I’m afraid, and it would be really useful if any of my blog/Facebook visitors could chime in with their thoughts. But I’ll give you my general thoughts and experience, which might be helpful, or not.

To a certain extent, it depends on the kind of book you’re writing. Category romance has very little time for backstory. Longer books can take more, and you can even put in a flashback if you need to. Some books actually depend heavily on backstory, and keep on going forwards and backwards in time. (In women’s commercial fiction, I’m thinking of Lisa Jewell’s The Truth About Melody Browne, or Kate Harrison’s The Self-Preservation Society, both of which deal heavily with the past as well as the present, and have parallel stories about the heroine’s past and present.) Knowing what kind of book you’re writing can help you decide what to do with the past in your story.

In general, my feeling is that commercial fiction most often needs to take place in the now of the story. If you’ve got a thrilling backstory and a static present story, why do we need the present story at all? Likewise, if you’re writing a book set mainly in the present, you need to think carefully about how much backstory is actually needed. Pretty often, you need a lot less backstory than you think you do. The key is that the reader needs to care about the character now, because of what she’s doing now, and not because four years ago she was run over by a marauding granny on a lawnmower.

If the backstory is all of a piece with the present character and her arc, pretty much everything your character does in the present is going to illustrate her history anyway. You might find that actually, by showing her present actions, you’ve implied her past enough so that you don’t need to go into detail. You may find you can deal with it by referring to it briefly in conversation. You may need a brief moment of reflection, or a dream, or a letter, or an argument about the past, or any of a thousand ways that you can give your reader some gentle information without hitting them with an info-dump. The more varied your methods, the less likely the reader will find it repetitive or difficult—as long as it’s not actually repetitive and difficult.

There are so many good novels where you can notice how the author is gently feeding in backstory in an interesting, useful way.

You may, too, find that you can remove info-dumps in revision, because you’ve actually threaded in backstory enough without actually telling the reader the bare facts. If you’ve designed everything really well, your reader will know lots about your character without maybe needing to know the nitty-gritty. Generally, I guess the rule is, if it’s repetitive, cut it out. Sometimes you as an author need to know something, but the reader doesn’t.

I’ll give you an example. I wrote a 10,000-word flashback for this last book. It was a great scene, about the heroine at ten years old, and how she completely ruined her town’s first Christmas pageant. I had a blast writing it; it was one of the first things I wrote, and it really made the heroine very clear to me. However, when I began revising the book, I couldn’t quite figure out where to put it. And I also realised that though writing the scene had been really useful to me in learning her character, actually, the heroine’s character was adequately shown in the present without this scene.

So I cut it. Though it does still take place in the story world, and several of the characters refer to it later on in the book, I figured the reader would be able to figure out what happened well enough by the references. (Because I love it, though, I’m going to keep it as an “extra” here on my website.)

I guess I’ve gone on enough without really answering your question. Overall, my feeling is, if it’s absolutely necessary, keep it. If not, cut it. And if it is necessary, experiment with different ways of getting the information in so it doesn’t feel too overwhelming.

What does everyone else think?

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22 Responses | | Comments Feed

  1. Readers are smart. They don’t always need a play by play to get the gist. Things like inflection, word choice, dialogue, and mannerisms can say a lot about a character.

    In Bridget Jones’s Diary, for example, we didn’t have to see up close Bridget’s history with men, cigarettes, or liquor; we saw her list of “I will not/I will” for the upcoming year and knew it was going to be a beautiful trainwreck.

    Carl Hiaasen is really, really good at this, too. He gives just enough information to get the book to make sense, but keeps it short and entertaining.

    Nick Hornby works with a lot of complex characters, and he’s pretty good about making the backstory more like a short story inside a larger work.

    And as a last resort, there’s always the almighty prologue.

    Just a few examples of how others do it. The key is to find what works for you and your story and your voice, I think. Nothing worse than backstory that reads like an instruction manual.

  2. What’s your opinion on the prologue? A lot of people seem to hate them, and I agree that sometimes they’re unnecessary–that the info can better be woven in later–but I also think sometimes they can be useful in setting the scene.

    The book I have in edits at the moment currently has a prologue, but I don’t know if it’s staying. I wrote it to give some insight into why my, er, tempestuous heroine is that way–because the story starts with her having a very bad day and she’s not a particularly warm and fuzzy person at the best of times.

    When my editor asked if it was necessary, I defended it, and then realised she had a point: should I be working in more details, sooner, about my heroine’s past? I did some of this in edits, and left the prologue to her discretion.

    So far, it seems to be staying…

  3. Yeah, Ehle, trusting the reader is really important. That’s why I said that in most cases, you need a lot less backstory than you think. It’s difficult to do this in a first draft—as the author you don’t have the perspective—so the revision stage is a good time to look to cut unnecessary backstory.

    I think it’s a great idea to look at books that handle this well, because as you say, everyone does it differently.

  4. Well, in the courses I teach, I’m known as something of a prologue-killer. I believe that about 95% of the time, the author needs the prologue more than the reader does, that you should start the story where the story begins, and that if the beginning of the book is written well, the prologue can be cut.

    That said, I’ve had two books with prologues. One of them was in my first book, and it was backstory, and I really don’t think I needed it. One of them is in Nina Jones, and it’s actually foreshadowing rather than backstory—a teaser scene lifted straight from later in the book. I do believe I need it, because the beginning of the book is so different from the title and the blurb that I need to make sure the reader knows she’s reading the right book!

    But that’s my opinion. It’s different for every prologue, and yours may well be in the necessary 5%. It sounds like you definitely know why you want it. Have you tried having one beta reader read the revised story with the prologue, and another read it without?

  5. Well, my original reader commented how abrasive the heroine was, and I thought–okay, a little insight ahead of time to let you know how/why she’s been disappointed so consistently. Else it’s straight into Snarky Bitch in chapter one. Hence the prologue. Then my editor questioned it. And now the crows of doubt are pecking at it.

    Boy, I’m really selling this one, aren’t I?

  6. I think you hit it on the head Julie! Great job and you actually made a lot of sense. I have been struggling with this very TMI issue with my new WIP, watching every P and Q to keep it moving forward. While still letting the reader know ‘how she ended up in this situation and why he didn’t know before now’. It’s a challenge that, in my personal opinion, each writer has to work out for themselves. We are the ONLY one who knows anything about everything, or everything about anything in what we write.

  7. Kate, I really do know what you’re talking about. Because I did have that same problem with Nina Jones—not that she was a snarky bitch (gg) but that she is *such* a typical chick-lit heroine in chapter one that I needed to give the reader a heads-up that she’s not always going to be like this. Otherwise, the reader’s expectations might be going completely the wrong way.

    Also, I was glomming Twilight at the time and totally making fun of it, and those books have those little flash-forward “I’m going to die” prologues. It’s one of my little bits of Twilight-satire in the book. 😉

    It sounds like you have a really good, valid reason for a prologue. Has your editor relented?

    You really should try the beta reader thing, since it’s a reader-perception issue. I’ll be one if you want. 🙂

  8. Calisa, good to see you here!

    If the past is an issue between the hero and heroine, I would totally have them discuss it, bring it up, make the most of their conflict about it. My first M&B book had a past conflict between h&H, and I was keeping it back, internal to both of them, until I realised it was much better for them to get the past out in the open pretty early, so they could disagree about it, and then I could get on to writing about the *present* conflict between them—which was similar to the past conflict, only much worse.

    Past misunderstandings are all well and good, but they don’t make for good present conflict.

    Authors are the only ones who know everything about our story, and sometimes I guess we’re the only ones who should. It’s deciding how much other people need to know that’s the hard part.

  9. I find the Donald Maass injunction really useful. Move ALL backstory to chapter 15.
    If you need it before then, what do you need and simply give enough to move the story forward. Once all motivations are known and secrets revealled, the reader has little reason to turn the pages.

  10. LOL, that is a really interesting idea! I can’t say I’ve followed it, but in principle, it’s good advice. You so often need less than you think, and if you get to chapter 15 and are far enough into the story that you don’t feel you need it any more, you probably didn’t need it in the first place.

    But sometimes you do need just little bits, small hints, for a richer experience. In the Stephen King I just read (Under the Dome) he keeps nearly all the main characters’ backstory until like 50 pages from the end, when it suddenly becomes relevant. I liked how he used it, and I thought it was effective, but during the 800 pages before that, I found myself wishing I knew the main characters a little bit better.

    Maybe you just can’t win. 🙂

  11. Oh I think it is a good idea. But sometimes as you say, you need the hints. But thinking to myself, hints before ch 15 helps me not to backstory dump. And there is a lot of stuff that the author needs to know about motivation etc that the reader does not need so forcing myself to wait means I hopefully keep the focus on the present problem rather than constantly referencing the past.

    When I did the interview for Living North, I used Crows of Doubt phrase which the journalist loved. She suffered from them and have not known what to call them… so I had hoped the term would appear in the article but alas and alack. I did give attribution as well…

  12. Well, so far the prologue seems to be staying, and my editor just emailed to say it won’t need another round of edits, so looks like she sees my way of thinking on this one!

    It’s funny, but I’d been thinking about a slight Twilight satire with my next novella–back to vampires for me!–so I went to the library to get at least the first book. Nothing. Checked the catalogue: one copy. One! and it’s still on loan. And this story is way overdue… so no satire just yet (even I’m not dumb enough to make fun of something I haven’t actually read, even if everything I read about it drives me batshit crazy!).

    The prologue story is a little late for a beta reader, but I may take you up on the offer with a story I’m currently percolating (I have about four in my head right now, it’s getting a little crowded) which I’d like to aim at LBD. Fewer vampires. Less angst. Probably.

  13. Hi Julie, just logged on and found this. Had a great read of the other items on your blog. Brilliant. I can see I’m not the only one who struggles with this paritcular aspect of writing. I’ll be checking it out on a daily basis and sharing the info with my friends who are also yet-to-be-published :-)Many thanks to you and your contributors.

  14. Michelle, I loved your interview! A lovely positive piece and you obviously gave the journalist a lot to think about. And crows of doubt, too…good work!

    Using the chapter 15 rule as a reminder to yourself sounds like a good idea. I’m not sure it can work on every book exactly, but it’s a great rule of thumb to keep the past back until you’re well into the present.

  15. Yay, Kate! I’m glad you got to keep what you need. And I’m totally happy to read your stuff if I can help. Why don’t you find a random teenage girl and ask to borrow her Twilight books? I have them all, it’s a pity you don’t live closer.

  16. Hi Anonymous-Who-I-Believe-Is-Lizzie-Who-Asked-The-Question-In-The-First-Place,

    I’m glad it’s helpful and the comments have been great, haven’t they? Good luck with your backstory…mine is killing me at the moment…

  17. I, er, don’t really know any teenage girls. Except for my cousin Esther who is WAY WAY smarter than I’ll ever be and hasn’t read teenage fiction since she was about ten; and who lives in Sheffield besides.

    Probably the library’s easier…

  18. They all hang round the bus stop! Just ask! 😉

  19. Hi Julie, I find it easier to write in the first person but its been pointed out to me that agents/editors aren’t too keen on first person narratives in rom coms. Waht’s you take on that ? Dont know why I’m coming through as ‘anonymous’!!!!

  20. Hi Lizzie! All of my books since 2006 except for one have been in the first person, so I can’t agree that they don’t sell. Adele Parks and Carole Matthews write in first person, don’t they? And Marian Keyes, in multiple first person.

    I think it’s probably all in the execution and there’s no hard and fast rule.

    The downside of first person is that it can be really easy to slip into telling rather than showing. That backstory issue rears its ugly head—in first person, it’s very tempting to let your character just talk and talk and talk and explain herself, instead of getting on with the story. It’s more difficult to show other characters’ development and growth and perspective. Third person often seems less limited, and some people really like to have the hero’s point of view, too.

    I like first person, though, because it really allows me to get into my heroine’s head and live as her for a little while. And I like the extra challenge of showing the reader things that the heroine can’t see herself.

  21. Where is the ‘extra’ scene? Is it on here? Am I blind?

  22. Ahhh I haven’t put it up yet, Jan. I’m going to closer to the book’s release in October.

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