Currently Listening To: Train – “50 Ways To Say Goodbye”
Currently Reading: A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
Backstory is important. It may not seem that way sometimes, because how many times have we been told by CPs or beta readers to take out the backstory because we don’t need it?
But it is, even if the reader doesn’t always get to see it, because knowing what happened to a character – especially a secondary character, I feel like – can really help in giving them more depth. For example, we didn’t get the full Snape and Lily story until the last 100 pages of the Harry Potterseries, but that backstory pretty much drove Snape the entire time. Why did Snape hate Harry, and yet agree to protect him? Why did Snape leave the Death Eaters and agree to work for Dumbledore? Even if we as readers had never gotten to see these things, JKR knew all of it, so it still would’ve added depth to Snape’s character instead of him just being That Teacher who hates Harry for no reason.
Even if you end up never using backstory in your manuscript, you still need to think about it. And how do you do that?
Some writers will just write all of it in, in the first draft. When I first started writing fiction, this is what I did. I included all of the unnecessary details, just because I felt like it was important to know and I didn’t know how else to include the information. I wasn’t yet to the point where I could distinguish between necessary and unnecessary information. Also, I had just read Lord of the Rings, and Tolkien loved his backstory like whoa.
These days, I have other ways of generating backstory. I have a Google Doc with all of my notes – characters, histories, etc. Sometimes, there’s a detail that gets slipped into the story, but there’s a whole other story behind it that I’ve written up. I’ve also written oneshots from the POVs of secondary or minor characters, just so I can get inside their heads and understand them better. (The oneshot method was really, really helpful when I was trying to sort out the Hayden/Freya plot thread.)
When trying to decide if I should include information or relegate it to the abyss of my Google Doc, I ask myself two questions:
Is this information crucial to moving forward the plot or understanding a character’s motivations?
How little information can I include, and still have everything make sense?
My general rule, as far as backstory goes, is less is more. If you give everything up all at once, why should readers want to keep going?
Image links to Pinterest.