Every once in a while, a bit of writing wisdom I’ve accumulated hits the ears of the exact person that needs to hear it — and it falls totally flat.
Please hear me — I’m not the be-all end-all of storytelling. No one is. My advice might not work for you. It might really work for you. Both are okay. But we all need to get to a point where we’re self-aware enough to be able to see the space between the two and where we fall.
I know though, it’s hard to hear something that runs counterintuitive to what you believe, something that shakes up your foundation a little bit. Who the hell wants foundation shaking? Not me. But some people — those super-self-aware unicorns I mentioned above — are great at taking foundation shaking and using it to examine themselves and grow, others just lash out a bit. Or a lot. This is an example of lashing out a bit, but it serves my point.
I have a piece called 25 Things About Creating Characters and I post bits of it with a link on Twitter every now and then. It’s been shared, across all channels, just over 30,000 times. Obviously one of my most popular articles, and one I’m most proud of. I still go back and reference it myself every time I’m about to start something new. I posted #19 on Twitter a few weeks ago: A character’s back story is the least important thing in the story.
Someone replied that she disagreed. You had to know the character’s backstory to understand how or why they’re doing what they’re doing in the story.
The first thing that struck me was that I’d said “least important” not “not important.” I wasn’t really precluding her idea (mantra, maxim, foundational life statement? I don’t know) that backstory could, in fact be useful. It can. Certainly. I wasn’t saying anything to the contrary.
But let’s dig into this a little further. Am I even right that backstory is the “least important?” Do you need backstory to understand what and why a character is doing what they’re doing as my Twitter friend said? Absolutely not. And the bonus corollary, can it hurt to spend a lot of time developing backstory anyway? Maaaaaaaybe. Probably. I’ll get to that in a moment. But first thing’s first.
You don’t need backstory
If you establish who your character is, what world you’re going to place them in, what problem/need/desire they have and what they think they’re going to do solve that problem or fill that need and desire, then you know exactly why they’re doing what they’re doing in your story, no backstory needed. They’re on a quest for something. It could be gold, it could be a new job or that new neighbor who’s really hot. They encounter obstacles on their way, they fail, they fail, they fail until one day they don’t fail (or give up — but let’s not complicate things too much right now). That’s story. No, actually, that is the essence of story.
You really don’t need anything else.
Let me put it another way. You might not know a thing beyond what’s happening with your characters in the immediate and you can still write a damn good tale that keeps us asking, “what happens next?” What more can you really ask for?
And this is why I say that developing a lot of backstory can hurt you. Instead of focusing on the simplicity of problem > obstacle > obstacle > obstacle > solution and so on, instead of exploring the story with your characters, instead of allowing them to react to the circumstances of the plot, you’re relying on the backstory to generate forward movement. Ugh. That’s so much death to your story. Stay out of that trap!
Example: My character is being chased by an axe murderer and could really use her car right now but it’s in the parking garage and in the backstory I spent more weeks developing than I have actual writing so far I decided she was once left alone in a parking garage as a child so now she’s afraid of them and in turn she wouldn’t run into one (even though that makes the most perfect fucking sense in this circumstance) ever so instead she decides to do something nonsensical and ridiculous and climb out the window because that’s what my backstory says she’d do.
Hopefully you’re laughing at the ridiculousness of all that, but I see it a lot with beginning writers. I’ve heard some editors call it “author intervention” and it is a form of that, but I think of it more as just not trusting yourself. You’ve created a well-developed character, with problems and desires and proposed solutions and plans of action, so let them have the run of things and see where it is they’re going to go. Maybe they just so happen to be the type who’d solve an axe murderer problem by climbing out a window instead of running downstairs to grab their car. But you’ll know that because you’re exploring with the character while you write, not because of some out-of-context predetermined idea you’re trying to impose on them.
It’s a lot like this with actors, too. The prevailing technique among actors (though it’s starting to fall out of favor) is based on the ideas of a few great acting teachers who’d learned from a Russian man called Stanislavsky way back at almost the turn of the 20th century. That’s more than 100 years ago. Don’t get me wrong, modern acting owes a lot to Stanislavsky, and we also owe a lot to the ideas those few great teachers built from his ideas. But their techniques rely on a lot of premade decisions — objectives that an actor is to play, sometimes a different one for every line. And you can always tell when you’re working with an actor who’s been trained this way. They never change. They never respond to you, no matter what you do, because weeks or months earlier they made decisions about exactly how this character would react (usually based in a lot of character research, psychoanalyzing and backstory development — sound familiar?) and they are going to play those decisions no matter what. There’s no spontaneity. There’s no authenticity. They are Acting.
It’s the same thing that happens to writers who rely on backstory and so-called “character development” to guide their stories. Thought #20, which not-accidentally comes immediately after my backstory thought, is: Don’t be surprised when a character does something you don’t expect. That’s called magic and you should just get out of its way.
Seriously — all this hemming and hawing and time spent on backstory just sets you up to kill that magic. We should love magic, and treat it well.
You’re the only one who cares about the backstory
The second reason I’m leery of writer’s who show up with notebooks full of backstory for their characters is that, inevitably, they don’t just want to use that to inform their writing, as the women who replied to my tweet said, they want that stuff in the story. You’ve spent all this time carefully crafting a narrative that explains EVERYTHING the audience needs to know about your hero, and they’re gonna know it, dammit.
But they don’t need to know it. Seriously, no one cares. I fight writers on this all the time. I’ll say something like, hey, that was going really great and was super-exciting until you stopped right in the middle to tell us about the time she had a fight with her mother over a pair of jeans with a hole in the ass — what was that about?
It was backstory, you say.
Yes. I know. Why is it in the story?
Because, it illuminates—
And that’s where I stop you with an angry hand up in the air and my mean face. The character’s backstory doesn’t illuminate anything, especially not something that couldn’t be more effectively shown in the present, in story. 99 percent of the time you’re tempted to reach for backstory to “explain” something about a character to your audience, this is the case. What you think you need to explain doesn’t really need to be explained at all. Audiences are generally a lot smarter than we want to give them credit for.
Let’s drive this home. Say you’re in an argument with your boyfriend. It’s heated because, once again, he’s being a totally selfish dick and you are just sick of it. And in the heat of the moment, you haul off and you slap him across his stupid bitch face. Then, you stop. Regain some composure, apologize and say, “I’m so sorry. I only did that because when I was 12 I saw my mother slap my father and the image has stayed with me ever since and I tried to work through it in counseling in my twenties but my therapist tried to seduce me so I left and moved to another city where I met you.”
Right? No. That’s ridiculous. Maybe you did slap him because of some unresolved relationship issues from your childhood, or maybe it was because he was being a dick and deserved it. Okay, no one deserves any kind of domestic abuse, clearly, but I’m rounding to a point here. The only place we tend to use extensive backstory in real-life is in therapy, so why should our characters be any different? My scenario above is ridiculous in reality, so why is it okay in your story?
Here’s where backstory will be effective for you. Casually. When you’re not trying to “explain” to your audience or justify the actions you’re imposing on your characters at that moment (because you shouldn’t be imposing, right? Right.).
Try this: Two characters are investigating a murder on a ranch and it comes up — logically, as they are walking through the stables — that one of them used to be a champion breeder or worked on a farm or got thrown from a horse once or something to do with horses. That’s backstory, but it works there because there’s a logical reason for a character to be talking about their past with horses in the middle of a barn full of horses. There’s no author intervention in that. But you didn’t awkwardly shovel on top of the narrative, you found a place where it made sense to bring in. It seemed appropriate, inconsequential even.
Maybe then, later, having set that up, you, being so awesome, use it to your advantage. You’ve worked it into your story in an unobtrusive, natural and logical way and then, BAM! You’re gonna whip out a plot development that takes us back to that bit of backstory we didn’t even realize was important and we’re all going to think you’re brilliant.
There’s a secret about that kind of brilliant backstory, though. It’s more likely to come to you, and in turn be more organic and suave, while you’re writing. Not in some let’s-sit-down-and-write-backstory-session so many new writers seem to be fond of.
Okay, so what do you think? How much do you hate me right now? I’m on Twitter, ready to take your wrath.