Thursday, 7 June 2012

"...And That's How I Became President of the Universe" - Charley R's Guide to Backstories

Memory loss, guilty secrets, frequent distraction, marauding hordes of penguins - just a few of those inconvenient events that can hinder a reader's knowledge of a character's backstory. There are few fictional environments - unless you're writing a sprawling epic like Beowulf or happen to have the last name of Dickens or Eliot - where one can give the reader all the necessary background on a character at once. 

Nota bene, however, that I am not referring solely to parts of the backstory that are used as plot devices - though they will invade a large section of the proverbial sofa in this guide. I'm referring to your characters' stories as a whole; where they come from, their family, their upbringing, the choices and events that have lead them up to the point where the author decides it's time to mess them about. 

Backstories are tricky things, not in the least because it shares a bitter emnity with plot pacing. How many of us have fallen asleep in pools of dribble during a three-chapter-long digression whereby we are filled in on everything from the characters' scarring experiene with Uncle Ted's rottweiler to their agonised naval gazing when asked about the suspicious death of the creepy-looking local  overlord? And that's without mentioning all the other things that can blow up in your face.

So, here are my top tips for integrating characters' backstories effectively, without turning your readers into zombies.

Hopefully it'll point you in the right direction.

1 - Plausibility
Especially applicable to the obligatory mysterious background / companion character, this is probably the biggest flaw I find in explanations of a character's history. Would you really expect someone to believe you if you told them that their childhood friend and protector was actually a thousand-year-old demon imprisoned on earth for attempting to destroy the universe? Especially when the aforementioned demon shows no sign of being anything other than a dim-witted but cheerful dope whose only evil deed is to mis-quote Monty Python.

My remedy for this is to have the character worked out before you even begin the story. Make sure you leave some small indications in previous chapters that could lend concrete proof to the revelatory plot element. The character's a sadistic demon in disguise? Maybe he's tested positive for a form of sociopathic behavior. The character is a long-lost relative? A little physical similarity and maybe an occasional "OMG, I have an Auntie Beryl too!" would help. 

For general backstory, this is the same. The odds of that heavily armoured brute on a horse actually being the long-lost son of the local washerwoman are very low. Likewise for your "typical American girl" turning out to be the daughter of some strange reclusive alien species. Know what they are, and what that entails in their behaviour, and ask yourself "does that really sound believable?"

Don't overdo the hints though. The readers aren't daft. Honest.

2 - Originality
Surprisingly, whipping out the Age Old Unfulfilled Prophecy is not always the best way to explain how a character is who they are. We've seen it so many hundreds of times and - like the aged wizard, the wise old mentor and the dusty volume in the abandoned library - we expect the outcome.

Try and make the revelation more interesting - or, at least, more natural. If it's general background, why not have them talking to travellers on the road, and they get onto relevant interests (a good part for explaining that your character is fond of music or swordplay), or have someone else talk about the character (a good part to get their reputation and origin). 

For revelatory snippets, you can be more creative. Although the event of suddenly discovering powers in a stressful situation is much used, the room to be original is massive. Rather than an old book explaining everything, why not have the characters discover the truth in bits and pieces throughout the story? This will not only compliment the plot, but it will be a point of interest to hold your reader's attention. Dragons and exploding turnips can only be amusing for so long, after all.

3 - Impact
I swear, if that wretched mage starts harping on about Sir Doobledoo's destiny to be the bearer of the Magical MacGuffin Sword and slay Lord MwuaHaHaI'mSoEvil one more time, I'm going to drown him in his soup bowl!

If you've got something to explain, you may as well do it properly. Make sure the events are clear, relevant, and - most of all - memorable. Although we may need a small reminder of the presence of the curse on Lady Fluffypants' pet gerbil from time to time, we do not need to be slammed over the head with its cause and lore every other paragraph. If the explanation is a good one, you will not need to do it again and you can get on with what the readers really want - the story!

Turning the "explanation scene" - if you feel you really must have one - into a memorable event can also be a great bonus for the story. Rather than being a digression from the action, try to make it a good piece of prose in its own right. Don't just wander off into a long-winded explanation - get the characters asking questions, get them reacting, get them thinking out loud. "Oh! That time you tamed the posessed hosepipe totally makes sense now we know you're part water sprite!" That sort of thing. 

4 - Nuance
Not everything in your backstory has to be flashy. In fact, not everything in your backstory is going to need to be told. Giving a general idea of a character's rustic background will be easier through their speech patterns (an accent? certain colloquial phrases?), how they stand in an environment (I dare you to find me a sailor who'd be happy halfway up a flaming mountain!), and what they do. In my newest novel - whose three protagonists gave me the inspiration for this post - I know for a fact that my lead male character is more than happy to talk diplomatically, but his sister is warmer from the outset and is more comfortable around strangers. 

Similarly, let your character's current position show their past. For example, the third protagonist of my trio is a general, but as he spent time as a stable boy, he knows plenty about animal husbandry. Show, don't tell. And let the readers' imagination fill in the parts of the tale that may not be so important - like extended family, childhood experiences etc. Keep it relevant, and, honest, you won't miss that gag about the mackerel in the local lord's boots as much as you think.

5 - Timing
I'm sure your agitated hero isn't the only one thinking there are better things to do during dragon invasions than be chasing pixies up mountains on the promise that catching one will mean he can learn about the platypus-shaped birthmark on his left butt cheek.

Although having someone torn between a personal goal and a more altruistic one makes for great conflict, don't let your hero's personal quest get in the way of your main plot (this may or may not be applicable, depending on the relevance of the backstory to the plot). Sure, we've discovered that your lovely little girl is in fact the daughter of an exiled enchantress ... but that's not much use when your quest revolves around hunting down a stolen biscuit. 

There are multiple ways of working this issue out, of which I shall mention a few:
- Running the two "quests" side-by-side, using them to keep up the tension and pace and keep the reader's interest if one narrative starts running dry.
- Using key events in the main narrative as teasers to the second, which can be gradually pieced together jigsaw-style beneath the main story.
- Combining the two; being careful to avoid the cliches, why not give the character a personal reason for going on their quest? It'll make the revelation of both a lot easier for you.

And, as mentioned in the "Impact" stage, try not to let the explanation run on for too long. Otherwise we will get bored. And you won't like us when we're bored.

POINT you in the right direction .... very punny!

What about you guys? Have I missed anything? Anything new to add on what's already up here? 

~ Charley R


  1. Great advice! "Lord MwuaHaHaI'mSoEvil" made me laugh out loud, (which isn't a particularly good thing when you're trapped between people on a tram in Amsterdam..)

    1. Hehehe, sorry about that ... or am I? ;)
      Glad you enjoyed!

  2. I love backstories. I love the way Dickens ties in everyone and everything, making everyone connected. It makes for complex stories.
    Of course, I can see the problem with taking two chapters to outline a side character's family troubles, but sometimes it's necessary. I mean, how else would the reader know the significance of the side character carrying a rock shaped like the number 13 around in her pocket?

    1. Ah yes, I do like that - though, admittedly, "Great Expectations" is the only Dickens I've read thus far that I've liked xD

      Bahahahahaha, you mock me sir! :P

    2. Yes, Great Expectations is brilliant.

      Indeed I do. ...What did I say?

    3. I love it :)

      Read your last paragraph, R.E. the backstory about hte rock and two chapters needed for digression. Though you already knew that, and I just walked straight into your verbal trap ... CURSE YOU! xD

    4. I don't get it... I know I'm being abnormally thick-skulled, but what...?

    5. Man I wish I knew what happened to the sweatshirt upon which I diagrammed the relationships of Great Expectations. I remember liking that book in high school. One of the few Dickens boots I've read. :}

    6. You read his boots? Where on earth did you get those? I bet they smell a bit ;)


    7. Have I unwittingly stumbled upon the fact that you, my dear Charley, carry around a rock in the shape of the number thirteen? Or just that you have characters that do that?

      I feel as though I ought to be guillotined for stupidity.

    8. That was you making up an example to mock me .... neither I nor my characters do that xD

    9. That was not to mock you-- it was to mock myself, sort of. But I'm sorry if you're so much like me that I mock you while mocking myself. *sniffs loudly, turns away in a huff*

  3. Hm... Yo make me wonder how I can weave Rachael's backstory into her tale better. It would be such an easier tale to work with is she wasn't, erm, well her annoyingly saucy sexy self. *sigh*

    I could probably do a better job of it with my Phoenixes. I think I did decent with Sarah's perspective though, adding tidbits of thoughts where something reminds her of family life. :}

    1. Well, for Rach, flashbacks will be easier, as her memory is all woobied out et al. They could crop up at really inconvenient moments ... *cackles*

      Good plan! Best of luck working it all in - it's hard work, I won't deny it :P

  4. And if you want an example of how not to do backstory, read Les Miserables. He gives backstory to everything. Even the sewers. The sewers. 100 pages for THE SEWERS. Every little bit of history about them. EVER. AAGAHGHAGHAGHAGHAGHAHGAHG.

    1. OH GODS YES!!!! Tried reading it ..... oh I gave up very fast xD

  5. Ah, backstories are one of my (many) weaknesses. Many times I have reluctantly taken up my pen and crossed out that looong paragraph about the step-aunt on drugs or my MC's childhood camping holidays to Exmoor.
    ALSO: Because she can't bear to let go of all those beautiful but unnecessary backstories, JK Rowling is maybe writing a HARRY POTTER ENCYCLOPAEDIA which will contain LOADS of stuff about characters and place and schtuff that she couldn't put in the books. I am Most Excited!! =D

    1. Backstories are hard, I won't deny it. Still, practice will make perfect! And, as JK did, you don't have to ditch the backstory. When you're rich and famous you can tell all those lovely details to your readers, rather than keeping them to yourself ;)

  6. Good advice, Charley! Backstory can be tricky to work in; you have to keep it interesting, after all, and you can't just tell the MC's whole life story in one go. You've got to slip in bits here and there, which can get a little difficult. However, this advice is definitely good. Good luck with your WIP!