Friday, October 17, 2008

Writing Fiction: Session 6 - Backstory

Before writing your novel, write or develop a detailed backstory. It's one of the keys to making fiction believable.

What is a backstory? Simply, it's the story of what has happened to your characters before they reach the first page of your novel and how all those past events of their lives have affected them. Without a backstory, you plop your characters into the current moment of your story as if that's the first day of their lives.

In the previous session, you wrote resumes for your characters. These list the schooling, work history, and achievements of each one. This information is vital, but it only gives you the framework.

The backstory for each character will fill in the details. A good way to write the backstory is to write a tell-all biography about each of your characters. Concentrate not only on what has happened to them but how they reacted and handled or mishandled the events of their lives. For example, does the character always withdraw from confrontation or does he/she charge through life with an attitude? Why?

You want readers to discover the depth of your characters from events in the book. By knowing the backstory, you'll be able to weave just enough of their history into the story, so your readers will come to understand their motives and anticipate their actions and reactions.

Don't look on devising the backstory for your characters as a chore. You needn't waste your best writing on this task. In fact, it's okay to devise your backstory in list form.


For example:

Let's say Don is one of your main characters. His backstory might contain some of these items:

  • He was born in Samson, Michigan.

  • His mother died when he was 7. His father was devastated and ignored Don's needs.

  • Don felt he never measured up to his father's expectations; consequently, he learned to tiptoe around his father, so he wouldn't hear how worthless he was.

  • Don took out his aggression on others by playing tricks on weaker kids throughout grade school.

  • He received average grades in school.

  • He didn't make the sports teams in high school.

  • He rarely dated; he was rejected by Sally Simpson in high school in front of others on the bus and didn't recover quickly from that.

  • He had a natural talent for piano... liked blues the best and would lose himself in music, playing for hours when his father wasn't home.

  • He began to date in college and that opened a whole new world to him ... etc.

I imagine you can see where I'm going here. Basically, you make a list of significant past events and the character's reaction to those events. Having a detailed backstory solidly in mind will allow you to get to know your characters as if you grew up with them. When you know the details of each character's backstory, they will begin to take on a life of their own as you write.

In our lives, we all act or react in any given situation based on our history and how our past reactions worked for us. Your characters will do the same. They'll react based on the backstory (or in spite of the backstory if the character is trying to overcome the way he/she has operated in the past). Based on this, I imagine you can see how valuable a backsotry will be to your novel.

It may sound like a lot of work to develop a backstory for each character. However, you won't need the same amount of detail for all of your characters. Obviously, you need the most detail for significant characters. Minor characters may need only a paragraph or two.

A backstory is not only about your characters. In some stories you'll need a backstory about your setting, too. This will especially be the case when you set your novel in a fictional town. In order to maintina consistency, you need to develop the past events of your fictional town and how the people of the town reacted to them.

If your setting is a real town, your backstory is the history of the town. You'll want to have a working knowledge of that town. Your readers will be able to tell when you haven't done your homework. And... they will let you know when you get something wrong.

So, get started on developing backstories for your characters and setting. You'll be thankful you did.

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