Backstories. Details that make the story and the characters more likely by revealing bits that happened in their past or even before and tie in into the present. Something that makes the story more complex.
Something I feared for all those years before I gave writing a try – and even the first years. How can I, who has nothing but an idea, make a story complex enough to stand a chance?
I will say it now, outright: that single question might’ve been exactly what kept me in the “maybe one day, I’ll give it a try” stage for years. I had no idea what and how to do to make the idea of my story look like a whole. Look like something that I’ve been reading, with all those details, the history that eventually led to the present conflict.
In a way, I was maybe worried about that too soon. I had just shells of the characters and not even the full cast. Of course, I could not create any backstory for them when I barely knew who they truly are. And no matter how much I tried thinking about it, I could not move.
Until I started writing.
It was only when the characters started doing something and started interacting with other characters when I saw who and what they might be. And from that, I saw what their pasts could’ve been.
In retrospective, it seems bloody obvious. I can’t imagine the backstory of why two characters are friends until I write them and see that they are friends, see what they have in common and eventually how they could’ve gotten there.
Yet, even with this, I still feared writing the backstories for a long time. Often, I thought that delving deeper will only lead to self-contradiction and piling more issues because the scope of amateur learning on the go seemed like something that could never grasp the complexity of a fictional world, even if it was my own world.
I don’t know when exactly it changed. It was maybe some third draft, by which time I had decent progress on the first draft of the second book. At that moment, the characters went through many things and I’ve seen them doing that. I felt like I could better guess what makes sense.
And since then, pieces of backstory just hit me randomly. I was thinking about a character, and suddenly, I had an idea about something that could’ve happened it his or her past and bring it to the present. Sometimes, those ideas were quite simple. Sometimes, they connected the pasts of several characters. There’s a couple of characters that dislike each other since I started writing the story (in 2015) yet it was only last year when I ‘realized’ why they dislike each other.
In turn, those ideas for backstories help me go forward. Seeing why something is the way it is in more details gives me an idea where I’d like to see it go forward, with more specific ideas than without a backstory. I can see whether or not a character would try to change the situation, why yes or no and if yes, then how. It’s easier to guess where a story might go when I know where it is coming from and how it interacted with the others and the more details I have at my disposal, the better my guess might be.
Since then, I enjoy writing (not only) backstories more. It’s still something that is a bit scary but now that I’ve seen how it made my story and the characters change, I welcome it.
Of course, as with anything about my writing, how good or bad job I did will only be revealed in time when the story is completed and someone else than I can see it and judge it. Yet, as I mentioned already, I see some progress within me and it helps me keep on the course, no matter the doubts and fears that I am, in fact, writing a huge load of total nonsense that could be only used as a blunt instrument of violence and not a source of entertainment.
Anyway, that’s my latest jumble of thoughts about my writing process. Of course, I’ll welcome any insights and comments on that topic. Feel free to share your thoughts.
I love backstories. We are all shaped by our pasts, so backstory I think is essential to most plots. Though it should be paced. I had some backstory in my WIP that in edits I realised came about to soon so I re-arranged the reveals. This is an insightful and thoughtful post. Thank you x
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Thanks for the comment. The pacing of backstory is surely important, timing it well with related plot point will make it feel more connected than when a character drops something from his history out of nowhere – something I’ve seen in a self-published book a few times. It might be the difference between “that explains a lot” and “why should I care?”
And of course, too much of it can overwhelm the reader or distract from the main story.
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