More notes from my backstory workshop. This week, I talk about writing strategies for integrating your character's past without harming the novel's forward momentum.
Prologue: An independent scene that takes place a significant amount of time before the main story begins. Pros: Readers can feel like they’ve personally witnessed a defining moment in the character’s life. Gets an important event that isn’t part of the current narrative out of the way, so that the reader can focus on the immediate story. Cons: There’s sort of a bait and switch element to this approach. Readers think they are getting one story, then you switch and tell a different story.
My novels Bitterwood, Burn Baby Burn, and Bad Wizard all have prologues that tell of a significant event that takes place when the protagonist is a teenager. In all of them, my primary goal is to give insight into characters who will later be more guarded. The readers know secrets about them that other characters in the book will never learn.
Flashback: In the course of the story, some event triggers a narrative jump back in time. This can sometimes represent the POV character’s memories, other times it’s merely the author inserting a scene out of sequence for dramatic effect. Pros: With the right set up, flashbacks can flow smoothly into the narrative and reveal a great deal of important information at a time when the reader’s interest in that information is heightened. Cons: Done poorly, flashbacks can ruin a novel’s forward momentum.
Personally, I avoid flashbacks as much as possible. Momentum matters, and I want my readers to feel that the novel is moving toward an ending, not meandering in time. That said, there are moments in a book where a leap backward to reveal a secret is moving forward in understanding, if not in plot. I use a flashback in Bitterwood when Vendevorex meets Bitterwood, and makes the cryptic comment about the first time they met. That line closes the chapter, and the next chapter leaps back to 20 years earlier to tell of their first meeting. The following chapter resumes the present timeline.
Dialogue, slowly: Over the course of the novel, the character’s back story is told via dialogue with other characters. The history is usually tangential to the current conversation, so it takes multiple conversations over many chapters for reader to piece together the full story. Pros: Reader interest can be heightened as they look forward to getting the next piece of the puzzle. Cons: Readers can feel like you’re being coy, purposefully withholding information.
I use this technique in Greatshadow to tease out Infidel’s history a few clues at a time. It works because she wants to keep her secrets, but there are others who know it. They make remarks about her past to goad her, but Infidel never responds, so the reader is left hungry for the next clue.
Dialogue, quickly: The direct approach. Your character gets asked a question about why he’s doing what he’s doing, and he responds by telling his story. Pros: Letting the character tell his story can feel natural. In the real world, if you meet a stranger at a party and learn she’s a firefighter or a literature professor or an astronaut, it would be perfectly normal to ask what drew her into the profession. Note: It doesn’t have to be the character herself telling her story. Backstory can also be relayed in gossip. Cons: Just telling the backstory all at once can turn into an infodump. Also, some backstories just wouldn’t be talked about in most circumstances. A character with a dark secret shouldn’t just blurt it out casually. (Though, of course, an entire scene could be built around his confession.)
This technique was used in Bad Wizard to reveal the formative years of Oscar Diggs, the former Wizard of Oz. In the course of a whole chapter, he tells Dorothy of his life on the frontier with an abusive father, and the cold-blooded course he chose to end the abuse. It’s a chapter where two people sit around and talk, with one person doing most of the talking, yet it’s still one of the most engaging chapters in the book because Diggs is being so chillingly honest about who he is and what he will do to get what he wants.
Clues and hints and teases: The lightning shaped scar on your protagonist’s forehead. A cobwebbed room with a crib in the house of a childless couple. An annual visit to a florist followed by a midnight walk through a graveyard. Diplomas for advanced degrees hanging on the wall of an elderly janitor’s tiny rented room. A letter bearing the return address of an insane asylum. The full story is never told, but there are just enough pieces of the puzzle that the reader can guess at the picture. Pros: Readers love feeling like they’ve figured out stuff. Once they form a theory about a character, they’ll be looking for more information to confirm their suspicions. Cons: To be blunt, readers can be a little dense. They might not notice half of your cleverly placed clues. They might draw exactly the wrong conclusions from the ones they do notice.
I dabbled with this technique in Bitterwood, not for character backstory, but with historical details that clued in readers that my seemingly fantastic setting was actually post-apocalyptic Virginia. For an example of an obscure detail I don’t flesh out but hope that sharp eyed readers will notice, General Junaluska in Dawn of Dragons is of Cherokee heritage. A thousand years later, Burke the Machinist is a member of a tribe of Cherokee devoted to preserving the scientific knowledge of the Human Age. Whether anyone has ever deduced that Burke is a descendant of Junaluska, I have no idea.
Keep it to yourself: Sometimes, the mere existence of a backstory in the author’s mind is sufficient for him to present a compelling character. The writer knows why the character is who he is, and can write with a confidence that builds the reader’s trust. Pros: You gain immediacy by focusing on the character’s present. Cons: Your character can be a cipher, distant and unknowable.
The character who most embodies this in my work would be the wizard-dragon Vendevorex. Save for a few hints, the reader learns almost nothing about his past before he arrives in Albekizan’s court. I have a whole rather convoluted story in my head about how he became such a morally ambiguous and secretive character, including the story of his life before he journeyed to Atlantis. But, he’s not a character who would ever tell his secrets, and no one he meets knows the story, so it may be something I never bother to put onto paper. It’s enough that I know who he is and why he is. Armed with this information, I can write him with authority.
That’s a whole ‘nother story: Sometimes, the backstory is deep enough that it can support a separate book. My own novel Dawn of Dragons exists because I created a great deal of backstory for my Bitterwood novels. In writing the Bitterwood books, I knew how the world had fallen apart, but it wasn’t essential to the immediate tale. So, I wrote the events of 1000 years earlier as its own, standalone book. Pros: Yay! I’ve got enough material for another book! Cons: George Lucas has almost single-handedly left the world skeptical of anything labeled a prequel. That said, when a writer spends a lot of time daydreaming about the backstory, it’s tempting to go ahead and flesh it out if fans want more. And, writing prequels is an interesting intellectual challenge for a writer, since he has to work within the constraints of his previously established mythology.
As a final note, I should say that most of my books mix these techniques to various degrees, and I use different approaches for different characters. Sorrow in Hush is more than willing to tell her past directly. She kind of won't shut up about it. The Romers in Hush don't tell their backstories directly, but continually reference important events in their past as they talk to one another. And, over the course of the book, we slowly learn details of Aurora's backstory as the characters travel to her home village to honor a promise made to her before she died. For some characters, I have to agonize and make hard choices about how to tell their stories correctly. For others, it just flows organically into the story. As you gain experience as a writer, your toolbox will grow.