Writing Excuses 13.19: Backstories
Key points: Backstory affects everything a character does, so it is one of the most important aspects of a character, but you also don’t need to map out everything and try to fit it all in. A broad overview, similar to what you have of your friend’s backstory, is probably enough. Then, when you are writing a character, you may find yourself inventing back story in the moment to explain their reaction. When you find you need more backstory, stop, make notes, and then later go back and weave it in. Sometimes you may want to build lots of backstory, but be very conscious of what the reader needs to know versus what you may need to know. Where can you fit in backstory? At the end of every action scene, as a pause or rest. Or when a character is interacting with something that triggers it. In conversation! Flashbacks are not just to give information. They should be presented at the right time to shape the interaction the reader is having with the story, to propel a story forward. Flashbacks that break the forward momentum of the story fail, while flashbacks that add to the momentum work well. You can use flashbacks to build a mystery and answer it, or to deepen it. Put your flashbacks in when the reader wants it. Avoid tangential zoom flashbacks. Think about what your character inherited, where they are now, where they want to be, and where they think they are. Those four parts are your character’s cultural backbone. Then discover the rest as you write.
[Mary] Season 13, Episode 19.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Backstories.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Amal] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Maurice] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Amal] I’m Amal.
[Maurice] I’m Maurice.
[Brandon] We are talking character backstory.
[Brandon] This has been really hard to not talk about…
[Brandon] Before this point.
[Mary] That is, in fact, my backstory for this episode, is that I’ve been wanting to talk about this for months.
[Brandon] So, go! Backstories.
[Mary] All right. So the thing is, like, backstories are simultaneously one of the most important aspects of your character, and also the thing that you need to worry about least. Because a backstory is going to affect the way your character moves through the world, they’re going to affect how they interact with other people, but at the same time, you do not actually need to map out their entire backstory, their entire life, and then try to fit it all in.
[Brandon] Yeah, because you will… If you work too much on it, you will try to fit it all in, and… Boy, the infodumps are really…
[Mary] So, generally speaking, what I try to do with my character is have a kind of broad overview of what their backstory is, in much the way that I have a broad overview of what someone else’s backstory is. Like, I don’t actually need to know more of my character’s backstory than I do of Amal’s or Maurice’s. I don’t need to know their entire life history, unless it is specific to the moment that I am encountering in that particular story. It’s absolutely affecting the way they move through their life, and it’s affecting the way I interact with them, but I don’t need to know all of it to be able to have an effective, moving interaction, and satisfying one, with them.
[Amal] Do you ever find yourself inventing backstory in the moment, because as you’re writing a character, you realize that they’re having a very strange reaction to something, maybe more than you’d planned for, because you’re caught up and then you retroactively invent backstory to…
[Mary] I’m, in fact, doing that right now with a novel that I’m working on. Where I knew that my character had previously been on this planet as a military surgeon. She’s 78 now, she had been there when she was in her 30s during occupation. And she’s back. I knew that about her. As the… As I’ve been working on it, I’ve realized that actually something went wrong when she was here previously. It wasn’t just that she was a military surgeon. I mean, obviously, war is a lot of things going wrong for an extended period of time, but that there was a backstory that I actually needed to unpack. So what I’ve done is I’ve gone ahead and stopped and made some notes to myself, and then am continuing going forward as if I had already written that stuff. But this is the mistake that I see people make, that I have to go correct, is that I will see a lot of writers who make that discovery and never go back to weave it in previously. Which either results in the reader feeling as if they’ve been coy all the way through, and not… Or feeling as if the writer lied to them.
[Amal] Interesting. I had a moment like that reading a book that came out recently called Autonomous by Annalee Newitz. Where you’re basically introduced to this character, who, in my case anyways, I just despised. Like, hated, hated this character. Then, you’re kind of given a flashback very late in the book that does actually explain a number of the behaviors that made me detest him. But it felt like too little too late. It felt like no, actually I didn’t… I feel like without having had… And that can actually absolutely be a decision. Like, maybe she just never wanted me to like this character. So it doesn’t actually matter that I have this information, and so on. But timing those reveals needs to be a deliberate choice as well, I think.
[Maurice] So, I’m horrible at following any of this advice.
[Maurice] [garbled to save myself]. I literally did 3000 words worth of world building for a story that was 6000 words long, so, I mean, that’s the kind of guy I am.
[Mary] I mean, I’ve been there and I’ve done that.
[Maurice] I’m the same way when I’m building my characters and doing their backstories. I try to be conscious of the fact that yes, I’ve done all this work, the reader doesn’t need to know all this, but I need to know this. Now, the one time when it did come in handy was with the first book of the urban fantasy trilogy. Because when I turned it in, it was a 60,000 word novel, because I was… I don’t know, I was doing a thing. But when they accepted it, they were like, “Okay. But this is an adult urban fantasy novel. You need to add 30,000 words to it.” I was like, “How I’m I going to add… The story is there, it’s done.” But what I ended up doing was, I have all this backstory material. All of a sudden, it’s like, “Wait. 30,000 words? I now have room to flesh out and to show some more of that backstory for some of these characters.” So you get an even deeper feeling of why they’re doing the things they do. Because sometimes they’re arb… And I realized that, when I was doing the draft, sometimes they are behaving in this nonsensical way. To me, it made sense, because I knew there backstory. It was like, “Oh, wait, I have gone to the other extreme of so not showing enough of this.” It was like, now, forced to add that 30,000 words back, I was like, “Oh, why don’t I bring the readers up along for the ride, so they can see this too?”
[Brandon] So, Maurice, let me push you on that. How did you get that in there without it feeling like an infodump? Because I think that you’re absolutely right, you need this stuff. But it also needs to be natural.
[Maurice] Right. So, it became a matter of how am I going to dramatize this information? So, then it was like… So, basically, I would go through the narrative and see where the brakes were in the story, to go okay, now… There were like… For example, there was a… Wherever there was a big action scene, I needed to sort of reset anyway. So I’ve learned that during those reset moments, that’s where I can slip in some backstory, because it gives the reader a pause, come down from that action scene and sort of reset the stage. During those moments, it’s like, “All right. Here’s a little bit more about this character.”
[Mary] I also find… So I’ll do things like that where I use it as a rest point. But I also will often handle the character’s backstory in the same way I’ll handle other pieces of infodumpy stuff, which is I will save it for moments when the character is interacting with something. So like if I want you to know how a mason jar works, I’m not going to go, well, a mason jar is a glass object that is used… What I’m going to do is I’m going to have the character pick up the glass, and I’m going to have them put water in it. I’m going to have them put a lid on it. I’m going to have them boil it. So that… I will have them interact with it. It’s like, “Oh, that’s how a mason jar works.”
[Mary] So a lot of times, when I’m trying to slip backstory in, then I will have it arise naturally through conversation, or through something… Some environmental trigger, some concrete trigger that… Like with the mason jar example, my grandma use these all the time, these mason jars, and her dill pickles were amazing. That’s the kind of… It’s like, well, now you know that I had a grandma who canned things.
[Amal] Right. Exactly. The… It’s funny. I’m thinking back to a short story I wrote called Madeleine which I’ve mentioned in another episode. Where, just talking about triggering things, literally the whole plot is that she has no control over the fact that she’s encountering things and they are triggering these memories and hallucinations, which are also flashbacks… But are also weird, because there are new intrusive elements that are happening in them. But for… In order to choose what those would be, because they were… Like the fact that they were happening was the plot, I didn’t want them to actually be moving in a way that advanced… Like… I don’t know if that makes sense. Basically, I wanted them to feel as random and intrusive as memory kind of is on its own. And as unpredictable. So even though it didn’t necessarily make plot sense… Like, it wasn’t necessary to the plot that she be sipping a cup of warm milk, or that she needed to remember that when she was a small child, she sipped a cup of warm milk in the same way and blah blah blah. The… Like, I tried to just through moving through my own environment, kind of pick things, things that are sensory, things that are weird and interesting and stuff to try and trigger those things. Because ultimately, the point of those flashbacks was something beyond giving information about the character.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. Which is Racing the Dark.
[Mary] Yes. So this is… Alaya Dawn Johnson is a wonderful writer. This was actually her first novel, which I had read years later. She wrote it, I think, 2008. It’s YA and it is phenomenal. Especially when you’re talking about character backstories. It’s set in a series of island nations in which people have learned to bind the spirit. So they have bound the spirit of fire and death and water. They have been bound for about a thousand years at this point. Wind got away about 500 years previously and wreaked havoc. It’s this young girl who is… She supposed to be a diver. That’s what she does. Much like the pearl divers, but for this specific type of fish. The environment is changing in ways that make people think that a spirit might be breaking loose. It just… Things just keep getting worse for her, in ways that always seem… It’s like and what other choice did she have? It’s forcing her down this very specific path. It’s just phenomenal. But her backstory, this… This… The fact that she was a diver is so important. Sometimes in things that she is able to do within the story, but also in the choices that she makes and the regrets that she lives. It’s a wonderful story. I’m actually reading the second book in the trilogy right now. But Racing the Dark is the first one, by Alaya Dawn Johnson. I highly recommend picking it up.
[Brandon] Let’s dive back into flashbacks. Because I love me a good flashback.
[Brandon] I just do. It’s interesting, because when I first got into writing, I remember one of my professors saying, “Don’t use flashbacks. Flashbacks are a crutch.” That is kind of some writing advice, and yet I have series that use extensive flashbacks. In my current book, I would guess that there are 50 or 60,000 words of flashbacks.
[Mary] But you know how to use them. This is the thing, is that a lot of times when people are using a flashback, they’re using it just to get information in. You understand that what a flashback is actually doing for the reader is allowing you to present information to them at a time when they need it. So, if we hearken back to a previous season, where I talk about the MICE quotient a lot, the MICE quotient is not about the linear timeline that a story… That a character goes through. It is about the order in which you present information to a reader. When you’re using backstories, you are presenting it in order to shape the way the reader is interacting with the story, not just to hand them a piece of information.
[Brandon] Right. I mean, handing them a piece of information is really important…
[Brandon] But the issue is you don’t want to frontload that into the story, you wanted when it will be relevant, and also when you’re dramatically… You’ll be like, “Oh, I can get the context of this scene now,” and things like that.
[Mary] Which then you can use as momentum to propel the story forward. A lot of times, and this is when flashbacks fail, it is because they break the forward momentum of the story. When flashbacks work well, they are adding to the forward momentum of the story by giving the reader information that they need to understand the emotional context of what’s at stake.
[Brandon] It also lets you build a mystery, and then answer it, or build a mystery and then continue it in an interesting way.
[Amal] I love that idea about momentum. I’d never heard it that way before. Because I found myself just now thinking of when I have found flashbacks successful. Interestingly, I’m more often thinking of film, because it feels as if it’s a filmic device, literally showing you in a visual way things that happened before. I was thinking of like Ratatouille… Everyone’s seen it, right? You said mice and I thought of…
[Amal] Yeah, so in fact, it opened a flashback to Ratatouille. Where basically the climax of that film is absolutely about pushing that forward momentum. It’s about… I think… I don’t know if there’s more than… No, there are a couple of them. But this flashback involves… To spoil the film…
[Mary] It’s been out long enough.
[Amal] It’s been out. So, basically, there’s this restaurant critic and he is impossible to impress, he’s made this restaurant lose its Michelin stars because he’s so asorbic, and our hero, the rat, has to cook a meal that’s going to impress him. So instead of trying to build up these airy things, he cooks a very, very simple country meal, ratatouille. He cooks like a vegetable dish. Then, to show how delicious this dish is, as the critic is tasting it, literally, the camera kind of like sucks you backwards into a flashback and you see him being a small child tasting ratatouille for the first time and loving it. It’s all warm sepia tones. Like, everything about the texture and the light and the timing of the flashback is such that you realize yes, he’s eating the best thing he’s ever had in his life, partly because it’s reminding him of being a child. It builds so much character stuff into that one moment. Which then resolves the film. It’s… So it’s not, you don’t need to know any of that stuff about the critic beforehand, you need to know everything opposite that. You need to know the critic is a jerk, who… It’s so great. Anyway.
[Maurice] I was just thinking about that… I tend to write a couple projects at a time, so like, I have a short story and a novel project I’m working on right now, and they both kind of hinge on this use of flashbacks, which I hadn’t really thought about until this conversation, how much they’re hinging on the flashbacks. So in the short story, you have this woman, she has a shattered psyche, and so as she’s trying to… I love the idea, again, I love this idea of the forward momentum… As she’s progressing through the story, there’s stuff that she’s dealing with in the present, as she’s remembering the past at the same time. So there’s kind of this going back and forth, going back and forth, but it is about building that forward momentum of what I’m trying to reveal about her and her trauma and her overcoming it. Within the novel project, and partly, don’t get me wrong, I love a good flashback. I just love a good flashback. So I was just thinking about how I’m using the flashback now in the current scene I’m writing, which is almost, in a lot of ways, just to set the mood for the rest of the chapter. So it opens with a flashback in order to just… Part of it is to just you’re going to get some insight into the character, which sets the mood for what’s going to happen in the rest of the chapter. So I love the idea of flashback and how it just… We all have these secrets that lay buried deep within us, sometimes we’re not even always aware of. So just that slow revelation of what that might be reveals a character to us.
[Brandon] Put it in when the reader is going to want it. I think of when my students do it poorly, or when I did it poorly when I was a new writer, is you’re writing along and you’ll be reading this story, and then… Tangential flashback, just zoom, and the author thinks that they’re giving lots of character, but really what happens is your reader, you’re in a scene, and then suddenly you’re off reading about grandma’s pickles…
[Brandon] And this extended thing, where really all you needed at that point was, “Oh, my mom… Or my grandma used to put pickles in jars like this. Hmm. Every time I take a sip, it tastes like pickle juice to me.”
[Brandon] Or you need a… Don’t do it this way, but a “Oh, no, not one of those!”
[Brandon] You need that hook that later on you’re going to get the explanation to.
[Amal] That is my reaction to pickles most of the time.
[Brandon] Depends on if they’re kosher or if they’re not. Anyway.
[Mary] Pickled okra, y’all. I’m just sayin’. Pickled okra is just… Ah’m just goin’ ta go full out Southe’n on y’a. It is just…
[Brandon] We are almost out of time, so…
[Brandon] Last comments on this?
[Mary] Yeah. I’m going to say that when… That you can spend as much or as little time building your character backstory as you want, but I do think that there are some things that you should know about your character going in. That you need to know where they are… That their cultural backbone, I would say. Which is how… And when I say cultural backbone, it’s four things. The inherited one, what is the culture that they have inherited? What is the culture that they are currently living? What do they aspire to? And then, what is their perceived culture? That if you know those four pieces of your character’s backstory, that most of the rest of it you can probably discover as you are writing. If you want to dig deeper into any of that, then I think you can. But don’t feel like you need to create a 3,000 word biopsy for each of your… Not a biopsy.
[Laughter oh, my God.]
[Mary] Well, you know, their backstory was…
[Amal] An exquisite corpse.
[Brandon] All right. Let’s go ahead and go to our homework.
[Mary] All right. So your homework is I want you to explore what these different tools do. So I want you to write a scene where a character has a flashback that exposes some aspects of their backstory. Then I want you to reset that scene again. And this time, in that same scene, they are going to talk to another character about their backstory, so that they’re having to deal with the ramifications of it in real time.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses, you’re out of excuses, now go write.