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How to create meaningful backstory?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Darkfantasy, May 6, 2020.

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  1. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Inkling

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    It's for my main antagonist so it's important for me at least to understand her complex behaviour and thinking patterns. I let a friend read the history I had for the character that I hoped explained how she came to her views on the world and all the positive and negative experienced throughout her life. He is quite an experienced writer and felt her back story had no purpose and failed to explain the characters current circumstances and psychology. He said 'even if you added this information into the book itself it wouldn't explain anything about this complex individual'.
    So how do create a back story that does? Not sure where I'm going wrong. Thanks
    Happy to share if needed.
     
  2. Yes it would be helpful to see what you have now. Often we create what amounts to a bullet point list or a timeline.These can be quite wordy, in paragraph form, and yet amount to little more than a "and then this happened" telling of a history. That's often not all that relevant and does not drill down deep enough into a character to bring them forward off the page.

    Here's an example from my personal life. When I was 12 someone shot me in the head with a pellet gun on the front porch of my grandmother's house. I had no way of knowing who did it, if it was intentional or not, as it came from the woods that surrounded the house across the street. I was fine, the pellet hit bone at the temple and stopped, but for a year or more afterward I was terrified anytime I was outside playing and heard someone in the woods. Any crack of a tree branch, any sound of laughter or footsteps on the hidden dirt bike trails. That event is noteworthy in and of itself but it alone adds nothing to the depth of character of that 12 year old boy. That is found in the quaking fear, the nightmares, the sick to my stomach feeling when I'd hurry inside again and again, the memory of the blood splashing on the door and the way my head rung like an actual bell that day. And the uncertainty and mistrust around who did it or why. . . and out of those, drilling down another layer, the way it changed my play habits, created a desire to be alone inside more often which, in the end, led to my becoming a musician, working with clay and illustration and writing music. If not for that event, I may not have begun to develop that internal, self-created world which, in turn, led to where I now make things for a living. It's all a part of who I am today thirty plus years later. . . but it's not only the big event itself, its the effects it had on me afterward.

    As a reader we may recoil at the event itself but we connect with the interior experiences and the way those details may turn us inside out. If I were a character in a novel that had gone down a dark path after such an experience, a reader could find their empathy in the depth of the experiences that might have turned me down that road. They can't do more than imagine the actual event unless the same thing somehow happened to them but they can relate to the ensuing fear, the uncertainty, the nightmares. Or they can relate to the fact that I refused to let those dark moments win out and take me down those paths.

    Often when I am trying to remember this, I'll revert back to reading an old Charles Bukowski poem, "The Shoelace", as a reminder.

    It includes these lines but I find it to be well worth the read if you search online.

    it’s not the large things that
    send a man to the
    madhouse. death he’s ready for, or
    murder, incest, robbery, fire, flood…
    no, it’s the continuing series of small tragedies
    that send a man to the
    madhouse…
    not the death of his love
    but a shoelace that snaps
    with no time left…


    That idea I try to apply to all my character development. It's not only the list of large things, but the myriad of the small.

    I hope some of that helps!
     
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  3. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Inkling

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    Ok I'll go through it once more than add what I have so far. Thanks for the reply.
     
  4. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    It sounds to me like you have two related tasks here. One is for you to understand the character's behavior and thinking, the other is to have the reader understand her. Those involve different aspects of backstory. I can only talk about how I've approached it, and leave it to you to pick out any useful bits. I'll talk about MCs from two stories, just to show that the approach isn't necessarily the same.

    One is Talysse, a young orphan who grew up believing she was half-human, half-elf, only to discover she was neither. That was the core premise. For her, it turned out I didn't need much backstory, save where it concerned her parentage. For the rest, she grew up in an orphanage that specialized in children with magical abilities. The only real backstory needed concerned Detta, a gnome who was her compagnon, a combination of nanny and servant who goes with on her adventure. Evolving that relationship required writing scenes, only some of which got used, to flesh out the dynamic between them. Not every character is complex, even if their origin is.

    The other is Julian, a spoiled Roman aristocrat. He had the potential of being a very unpleasant fellow, but he's the star of the show and as a reader I find unpleasant MCs quickly grow tedious. He required tons of work. Initially I had a different MC and Julian was just a fellow at the table providing snarky remarks about Roman nobility. Once I made him the reluctant commander of a legion, things got more interesting. I gave him a domineering, famous general for a father, one who died when Julian was in his early teens, freezing his dislike of all things military at that point. He hates the army and now he has to lead one. He was a troublemaker who never paid a high price because his mummy bailed him out. Now he's in a place where no one can bail him out. You'll notice that I don't say anything about romantic relations, personal philosophy, or other aspects. They weren't needed for the story. Julian, like anyone, is more complex than any one story; I as author only need what I can use.

    In both cases, I'm sure you notice, it's story first, right down the line. I know the character will face a situation or make a choice or have a certain companion, and that raises questions. Answering those is the backstory. Nowhere do I have a file called "character backstory". I have notes aplenty, but they're rather haphazard, made as hazards happened. They're the bits and pieces. They're the sketches made prior to the actual painting, and they get added to right through the writing process.
     
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  5. The Dark One

    The Dark One Archmage

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    I would simply say that meaningful backstory has an impact on the story.

    If it doesn't, it's just padding - which can still be entertaining if not overdone.
     
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  6. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Backstory can be meaningful to the author without having to appear in the story itself. In that context, I'd say that meaningful backstory is whatever I need to write in order to answer whatever character question is bothering me currently.
     
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  7. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Inkling

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    Sorry for the delay in a reply had an emergency to attend to. I'll be back to this asap. thanks for answers so far. x
     
  8. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    Backstory is important to the extent it effects the characters actions and intent.

    In the 'Empire' series, I have a knight, Sir Peter Cortez, who is extremely protective about his employer, Lady Tia Samos. Far more protective than his position as 'bodyguard' would merit. Reason: during the Traag War, a couple years prior to the story, Peter had a 'relationship' with Tia's older sister Tessa, a person he credited with turning him from a homicidal lunatic into a person with a veneer of humanity. Tessa was killed in the Traag War's concluding battle - something Peter blames himself for. He sees saving Tia as making amends for his prior failure. Hence, the bit of backstory involving Tessa's death is relevant to the tale overall - it cuts directly to Peter's motivation.
     
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  9. S J Lee

    S J Lee Minstrel

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    MOST OF THE TIME, we want to be thrilled by the plot/story and to be rooting for the main character... or to see them get their comeuppance.

    Remember: show, don't tell. Show me what they do. Give them a problem/crisis/unmet desire. It could be anything. How do they try to get what they want? Do this a few times and we begin to know who they are. Telling me why they did it is less important.
    You can't really go wrong with this, as long as they don't do CONTRADICTORY THINGS.
    Look at (eg) No Country for Old Men, (I am talking about the movie) Anton Chigurh (What is the most you ever lost on a coin toss?) sometimes kills people and sometimes doesn't. The people he kills maybe annoyed him or looked to closely at him. Eg, the store owner. But maybe he didn't kill the accountant?
    Llewellyn is a Vietnam vet, but we only know this for sure when he mentions it to impress a guard at the border crossing.

    I am writing something and my main heroine is a skilled warrior. I want realism in the story so I feel I do need to explain why she was trained, and how. Otherwise, it is the trope, "women and man are interchangeable as warriors and no-one even notices". But we only get it 100+ pages in, and maybe it isn't needed at all?
     
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