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Monday, April 28, 2008

My Book Therapy: Backstory. How Much?

I discovered this great post at Susan Warren's and Rachel Hauck's My Book Therapy:

Let’s address the biggest issue with backstory: How much should you develop?

Answer: Enough to know your characters motivations for why he/she does the things they do in your story.

If your character loved to draw as a child, and always dreamed of being an artist, that’s only important if it has something to do with the plot. If he’s a detective solving a murder, it might not have anything to do with the story. However, if he is asked to draw the suspect, and discovers the rusty talent he had, then perhaps it is slightly important. If, even better, he loved to draw, and had talent, but his father told him he was a terrible artist (in order to discourage such a “frivolous” career), and the story is about a policeman who discovers that he has the ability to see the crimes in the pictures he draws, (and thus was always meant to use this God-given gift) well, suddenly this backstory takes on relevance.

As the author, you always want to figure out what elements of their past molded them into the people they are today. Mostly because you’re going to use the fears and dreams, the secrets and mistakes from their past to construct their story.

Ask your character: What is your darkest secret, and how has that affected you today? What nightmare have you carried with you, and what do you fear because of it? What was your happiest moment as a child? Why? These answers create the backstory that counts.

I’ve read countless books where the character seems to have been born on page one. They’re flat, uninteresting, even unbelievable. Even worse, however, is when the character’s entire life history is fleshed out in the first three chapters. I’m not going to remember (as a reader) what college he/she went to. But tell me that he witnessed a murder as a ten year old, and yes, that I’ll remember.

We talked a lot in the beginning months of our journey about sitting your character down and chatting with him about why he is who he is. This is the backstory, and is essential for a well-rounded, three-dimensional, living breathing character, and the key to creating a hero/heroine that your reader will root for. (Mostly because hopefully, he’ll have elements about his past that most people can relate to).

Rachel and I were talking about how to develop a new series, how working on the backstory, really fleshing it out is essential. Not only will it give characters depth but here’s the REAL gem – it will generate future story ideas, also. If our characters had a childhood friend who died, or went missing, although it might not be the biggest event in her life, it’s an element authors can use to develop a future storyline. Backstory gives you material to work with.

And material gives you options for your story. Take the time to flesh out the backstory. It’s a little like digging for treasure….you’ll never know what priceless artifacts you might fine.
Okay, so now that you have your backstory, how much do you tell? What tidbits do you drop, and how thick?

I'll post more about backstory on Wednesday and Friday!

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1 comment:

Tabitha said...

That's good advice...sitting down and chatting with your characters. I've always wondered how authors could come up with some pretty fantastic characters.

I wonder how they organize it all (the backstory)?