Wednesday, March 04, 2009


In a major leap forward in my "get my act together" program, I tackled an item on my to-do list that has been there for months and that I've been procrastinating about because I was dreading it. And it turned out to be just as tedious and challenging as I'd dreaded. But now it's done and I feel ten pounds lighter. I think I even slept better last night.

Because I was inspired by some discussions at the last convention I went to, I'm going to address how to use the information you develop for a story in the story. And because characterization is one of my favorite topics, I'm going to start with that and talk about how to work with a character's backstory.

Backstory is the history of the character before the story begins. It can include pivotal experiences that got him to the place or situation he's in at the start of the story, as well as early life experiences that have shaped him into the person he is today. Backstory can explain where he gained certain skills, how he relates to people and even why he does the things he does. While backstory can be an important part of developing a character, it's not the same thing as characterization.

Characterization is the choices a character makes or the actions he takes, especially under pressure. It's what defines the kind of person a character is. It's what's important in the present of the story, and it's what moves the story forward. The characterization may be affected by the backstory, as the character's past may explain why he makes particular choices, but the backstory itself is not characterization.

I think this is a distinction that TV writers, in particular, are bad about not getting because they too often give us flashbacks or Very Special Episodes in which something from the character's past is revealed, and they count that as characterization. But it's not. Knowing everything about the person's past doesn't mean I know who he is as a person.

Here's an example:
The backstory of our hypothetical hero, Joe Hero, is that he grew up in foster care, so he was bounced around the system and lived in a bunch of different homes throughout his childhood. He's never had a sense of family and didn't have anyone who really counted as "Mom" or "Dad" in his life.

That does tell us something about him, and we can imagine various ways that might affect him as an adult, but we don't actually know anything about his character from that backstory because we don't know what decisions he'd make and there's nothing in that backstory to propel a plot.

So, let's give him a dilemma, a choice between mutually exclusive good things. Now that Joe's an adult, he has a good job, one he likes and is good at. He even likes his co-workers, and his boss has become something of a mentor to him. He has a home and friends. The only problem is that there isn't any room for advancement where he is. Then he gets offered a new job, one with a more prestigious title, more responsibility and a bigger paycheck, but to take it he'll have to move very far away and start over again where he doesn't know anyone.

Which choice does he make? That will tell you a lot about your character and about the way the story will go.

He might choose to stay because he cares more about the connections he's made and the stability he's finally achieved than he cares about advancement and money. He finally has a kind of family in his co-workers, he's got a home he wants to stay in, and his boss has become like the dad he never had. That priority will affect other things in the story. It means that he might be willing to take drastic action or even make sacrifices to protect and defend this "home" and his surrogate family -- whether he's defending against corporate raiders if he's working for a company, evil aliens if he's on a space station or spaceship, or criminals if he's in a police squad. We know he'll also probably feel hurt and betrayed if the company and his colleagues don't show him a similar kind of loyalty.

Or he could choose to take the new job because he's never learned to develop deep ties to people and places, and he's used to having to constantly move on. He's learned that the only person he can count on to take care of him is him, so he's going to take the position that's best for him. That's going to result in a totally different kind of story because it's a totally different character. He's going to be making decisions based more on logic and self-interest than on emotion or personal loyalty. He'll be more of a loner, possibly even a workaholic. It might take an extreme threat to force him to take action to protect the status quo instead of cutting his losses and moving on, and that could be a major turning point for the story. He might be pleasantly surprised (or even suspicious) if someone shows loyalty or commitment to him.

You may not even have to mention the backstory outright to explain these choices, because it's the choices that matter. His present day actions should explain a lot about the choices -- if he spends time away from work with his colleagues or puts himself on the line to protect them, it's a pretty good sign that he chose to stay because he sees them as family, or if he keeps things cool and impersonal at work and the move to another place barely disrupts his life, that's a sign that he's used to making moves like that. Readers may be curious about how he came to be that way, and that's when you can drop little hints about his past. But what's most important is his present and how he deals with it.

A good rule of thumb is that the more pertinent to the current plot and the more extreme the backstory is, the more mention it needs in the story. If your story is about a retired assassin whose attempt at a quiet retirement is disrupted when the son of someone he killed comes looking for revenge, then, yeah, you're going to have to bring the backstory about his career as an assassin into the book. My example of the former foster kid involves a situation extreme enough to have plenty of emotional ramifications, so it probably would need to be addressed in the book. But if you take the same dilemma and choices but change the backstory to Joe Hero being a military brat who grew up moving from place to place with his family, so that he stays because he's tired of moving or moves because starting all over again in a strange place isn't scary to him, that might be "normal" enough that it doesn't matter all that much.

The danger of a fully developed backstory is that it's far too tempting to throw it all in, especially in the opening chapter of the book so that readers will understand the character (one of the most common beginning writer mistakes). We tend to think in chronological order, so our instinct is to tell a character's story from the start, bringing us up to date so we'll understand his present -- almost like the "previously on ..." bits at the beginning of a television episode. That's where you get the kind of scene that even makes its way into too many published novels, where the book opens with the main character on the last leg of a journey to some place, thinking about his or her entire life up to that point and all the reasons he or she is making the journey. The problem with that is that it's kind of boring, since backstory isn't action. It also eliminates the intrigue angle. One of the big reasons people keep reading a book is to get their questions answered -- what will happen, why is this happening, who is this person, etc. If too many questions are answered too early -- or if the answers are given before the reader even has a chance to wonder about those things, that makes it far less urgent to keep turning pages.

Which makes for a more interesting book opening -- a scene in which an old man at his favorite fishing hole thinks for a few pages about his career as an assassin that he's trying to put behind him before a young man shows up and says "Hello, you killed my father. Prepare to die" or a scene in which an old man at his favorite fishing hole is startled when a young man shows up and says "Hello, you killed my father. Prepare to die"?

Probably the second because, in addition to not subjecting us to pages of thinking at the beginning of the book, it has the element of surprise (if we already know the old man was an assassin, we're not nearly as shocked by someone confronting him as we are if we think he's just a retired guy at his favorite fishing hole) and it raises the questions of why the kid thinks the old man killed his father, if the old man did it and why he did it, even who the old man is. We'll probably keep turning the pages to find out the answers to this. But what really matters in this scene isn't the old man's backstory. It's what he does next, the choice he makes, that defines this character and sends the story on a particular path. Does he pull a gun out of his tackle box and shoot the guy, or does he hand him a beer, tell him to sit down, and ask him who his father was? Does he try to escape, or does he try to lie his way out of it? Does he use his fishing line to tie the guy up before he starts talking to him? That's what tells us who the character is as a person. Whatever he does, the way he acts, the things he says and the things the kid whose father he killed says will eventually give us a good idea of what his past is.

Another trick for handling backstory is remembering that you don't necessarily have to line everything up. The backstory may be the motivation behind a character's choices, but you don't have to be explicit about it in conjunction with the choice. When Joe Hero the former foster kid turns down the new job that would require him to move, we don't need to have him thinking about growing up as a foster kid as he makes the choice. You could just show his closeness to his co-workers and the way he treats them like family, and then at some point in the book he could make a remark about the kind of cake one of his foster mothers used to make, or he could have trouble remembering where he went to fourth grade because he moved three times that year, or maybe even one of the other characters will be curious about him and either ask him about his past or dig into it. The readers will connect the dots with an "Oh, that explains it!" reaction.

Some other things to keep in mind about backstory:
- You as the author probably need to know more about the character's past than the reader does. You need to know what shaped the character in order to figure out which choices he would make, but the reader may not need to know this. You should only give exactly the information readers must have to understand what's going on.
- Scatter the backstory information through the story. Don't do infodumps, in which you give large chunks of information, especially at the start of the book (I've heard a lot of editors and agents say that many beginning writers can usually cut chapter one out of their novels because that chapter is almost always an infodump of backstory, and the story actually begins in chapter two).
- When at all possible, convey the backstory information through action instead of interior monologue or narration. That can include conversations, actions demonstrating knowledge or experience and investigations by other characters. In dialogue, avoid the dreaded "As you know, Bob" construction, in which characters tell each other things they both already know, purely for the benefit of the audience.
- If you do have to resort to the character thinking about his past, make sure those thoughts are in character -- would he really be thinking about that, in that way, at that time?

Next I think I'll tackle worldbuilding -- not so much how to build a world, but how to incorporate the world you've built into your story.

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