Author: Sandy Vaile
Originally published in Romance Writers of Australia, Hearts Talk ezine, April 2016
Today I’m going to explain why I believe backstory is like a potent spice, and you should too.
What is backstory?
You’ll read many different definitions on the internet, but for my purposes I like to define it as: Anything that happened to the character before this story started, which provides context to the story.
The important aspect is context. It’s not enough to throw a heap of character history in as filling, no matter how fascinating it may be. It must be relevant to the story. It’s also the base line from which you can show the all important change in your character by the end of the story.
Backstory is a robust yet understated tool. It’s vital to help show what makes a character tick, and yet can totally distract the reader if not finessed into the front story. Backstory is the foundation of realistic reactions to events, and adds layers to make characters three-dimensional, by revealing where personality, morals, hopes and fears originated.
Why a potent spice?
To me, backstory is like a flavour you can’t quite pick lurking in the layers of a curry. You know it’s there and it enhances the flavour, but it’s intangible and fleeting. It’s a vital ingredient that you need to infuse through all the layers of your story, without sacrificing other flavours (like pace or suspense).
I firmly believe that in 90% of situations, it should be added in a quantity befitting a jalapeno chilli that can set your mouth on fire. You don’t need to be able to see chunks of chillies to appreciate the heat. What you need is subtlety of flavour.
The way backstory is delivered can mean the difference between the reader discovering information for herself ¾ like selecting a favourite chocolate from the box menu ¾ or being force-fed it like a boiled Brussels sprout. (Apologies to Brussels sprout lovers.)
Backstory is a part of character development, and should be uncovered in a quantity that relates to the amount of page time a character has. For example, a main character needs much more backstory development and disclosure than a minor character.
I’m sure we all have a friend who loves to talk about themselves, and it takes superhuman willpower not to tune out after a while. Why? Because being told stories isn’t nearly as interesting as experiencing the action first hand.
Hence why you need to thoroughly infuse backstory into your character’s daily life, thoughts and actions. This way, the reader feels as thought they are learning about the character as they take the journey with her, rather than being force fed.
By allowing the reader to discover how past events have affected the character, and feel her inner turmoil as she faces her worst fears, they can better appreciate the changes to her core beliefs. This sort of rapport is priceless. Now that’s a powerful spice!
For some reason, writers tend to forget the ‘show, don’t tell’ mantra when they need to squeeze backstory into their front stories. Here are a few ways that you can work that important historical information in.
Dialogue is an interactive way to reveal backstory, but use it cautiously, or it will sound forced.
For example, don’t say things like, “As you know, Bob, I used to be a rodeo clown”.
Instead try something like, Bob picked up a photo from the cupboard. “Don’t tell me; you are the entertainment for kid’s parties.”
Emily laughed. “Close. I was a rodeo clown until dad got sick last year.”
Internal thoughts involve the character thinking to herself.
She might think her way through a situation, relating it to a significant past event to justify her actions.
Here’s an example from “Inheriting Fear”. As a child she’d been too young to understand her father’s grief, but now she owned it. The clogged feeling between her ears, the hollowness in her chest, the gut-wrenching pain of losing the most important person in her life. It was no wonder Jack had been unable to love the people who were still in his life. Self-preservation was a powerful thing.
Other characters can be a very useful to reveal backstory, especially if they ask questions, interfere, eavesdrop, or just lend a sympathetic ear.
An example from Inheriting Fear is when Detective Luca Patterson discusses case files with another policeman.
Mirroring what happened in the past can be effective.
Use weather, location or situational similarities to build on themes, trigger a memory, and link the past and present.
Flashbacks are one of the few times you can get away with a large amount of backstory in one place.
That is because you’re not just telling the reader information they have to know, you’re transporting them back to another time and place to show them.
A familiar cricket-like chirping brought a smile to her lips and her gaze followed a Volkswagen Kombi as it rattled past. It reminded her of a happier time, when she was part of a real family.
On the day of her fourth birthday party, Mya sat on the lounge room floor in a circle with five kindergarten friends, playing pass-the-parcel. Jack tousled her hair and knelt beside her.
“Happy birthday, Mya. I got you a little something.”
The game was momentarily forgotten at the sight of a square box wrapped in iridescent-blue paper. She picked at the sticky tape, carefully peeling and folding it. It was going into her collection of precious things. She lifted a toy yellow VW Beetle from the box. The cutest car she’d ever seen, just like the one she’d fallen in love with on their beach holiday. He’d remembered.
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