Saturday, October 6, 2012

Backstory isn't frosting on the cake, it's flour and eggs

You may have heard the suggestion to fully explore your character's backstory in order to make them believable in your novel or short story. Things like how many friends they had and places their family lived while growing up, what subjects they struggled with in school, how they responded to typical child or teenage challenges; or, what un-typical things did they get into? Why is that kind of stuff important, anyway?

Image by hylaszg/
I think it's not just important, it's essential. Some characters show up like Athena from Zeus' head, fully formed. Others, not so much. For my own characters, I have a bunch of scenes written from Neal's Point Of View. Those are great for exploring his evolving adult personality but don't help me understand how he got to be the way he is.

And it gets worse. At the start of the novel, Neal's been part of a street gang for years but wishes he could get out. There's a rule against leaving, and breaking it means being used as target practice for semi-automatic rifles, so he stays put. When he's offered an opportunity to get away from the gang, he decides to risk it partly because the person he's met promises to help him look for his mother who abandoned him at age ten.

I make a point of Neal needing to know why she left him, and he meets up with her late in the story. But I never figured out details of the answer! It was kind of like, She was forced to leave him behind and has missed him ever since. Well, duh. I can't spend 20 chapters building up the search for her without having a better response than that!

Plus, I never figured out what exactly happened after she left him, because by then, her husband is dead so Neal finds himself an orphan at age ten.

I suppose normal writers would want to know what happened to him! Me, I think I got caught up in the "romantic" notion of him becoming a bad boy right then by having nobody to turn to but the gang. It's complicated by the fact that by the time he leaves the gang, he's got his own kids who he leaves behind.

I'm betting you just said "What? He's bothered by his mother abandoning him but he does the same thing?"

Exactly. ...embarrassed emoticon... Big problem.

I reconcile that two ways. First, in a very macho gang culture (especially I think back in the 80s) kids and women are possessions. It's a bragging point for Neal that he's got three regular women and four kids when he's only 18 himself (the numbers are tweakable but the point is valid). He doesn't live with them or even see them every day. He doesn't have the emotional attachment to them other people would.

Second, his mother left him to fend for himself in some ways, and he managed. The gang took care of him. His own kids still have their mothers so they'd be fine if Neal took off. Those two points need to be shown in the story but that's doable.

I took these problems to the Critique Circle community because helping each other is what we do there. J

Image by bluehor/
Posters helped me see that I was worrying about certain things that didn't need to be worried about. Join a group, find people you click with, because they will help you with stick situations! (I'm plugging CC here because it's awesome. Everything you need in a writers community is there) Thanks, CCers!!

Without working through some of the details of what happened to Neal as a ten-year-old, his later actions (and his mother's) fall like a cake that didn't have the right ingredients or wasn't mixed properly. That tiny bit of baking powder or those egg whites? Yeah. They're essential.


  1. Great point! Recently, I was having trouble with one of my characters. She wouldn't open up to anyone and I didn't know why. So, I started over and began writing from her earliest memories.

    I basically wrote out her life story before her introduction in the book. And wow! It's great now. I've learned so much about her and her actions.

    So, kudos to the flour and eggs. I seriously want some cake now, lol. :D

  2. Thanks Lanise. I used to think I knew my characters well enough just by writing the story, but have recently discovered that's just scratching the surface. *great* that you got to know that character finally!

    A lot of my writing metaphors seem to be about food .... hm ... J