Firstly Apologies for such a long time between posts, as always the day job takes precedence. Moving swiftly on, today let’s look at the importance of using back story to elevate your novel or short story.
Weaving in a characters’ back stories is an essential skill to master. It is always a good idea and sometimes crucial to your whole premise to have the back story established before you start writing. This is because a solid back story will determine past experiences and repercussions of previous actions. Also especially in the Fantasy and Science fiction genres, a good back story will provide the foundations of the world you are trying to create and will also encourage the reader to have unanswered questions regarding what went on before the protagonist was introduced. Every character, to be engaging, needs to come into your story with unresolved personal conflicts. So the sooner you have a full understanding of what these problems the better—even if readers don’t see connections until later on. Think of yourself as the Characters personal psychiatrist.
A series of simple methods can help with the transfer of useful and important background information to the audience.
These include dialogue, narration, internal dialogue and flashbacks. An essential point to remember here is that the exchange of information needs to be natural, an osmosis as such, rather than a forced action. And the Back story needs to be integral to the tale you are telling.
Here we will outline some of these methods and how they work in creating believable back story.
It is very rare nowadays but previously, playwrights used to develop characters who walked directly out of the set or stood in front of the curtain to reveal formation about the characters to the audience. One of the biggest dangers here is getting into info dump territory: supplying all the information and context and life stories of everyone involved. Only providing “shards of back story,” and what’s absolutely necessary will help here.
Interjecting a scene from the past into the present plot, is a flashback. These can be done by using a character’s interior thoughts or interior monologue. The whole point of the flashback is to give information or an explanation about a specific event or character that is essential to the reader to know. Again it has to be integral or vitally important to the present scene or circumstances, as a Flashback will slow down a story or interrupt the flow. Also Flashbacks need to be woven in as smoothly as possible.
When two people are giving vital information about a character’s backstory in a factual conversation, it becomes a data download and swiftly can escalate to being dull for the reader. If we switch the context and they are having a heated discussion or argument, the conflict reveals the hidden story and excites the reader.
In A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams provides back story when Blanche DuBois comes to visit her sister, Stella, and her brother in law, Stanley Kowalski, at their run-down apartment. Stanley hates Blanche because she has a superiority complex resulting in him angrily lashing out to Blanche and Stella:
Stan makes his point whilst at the same time providing an insight into his happier past.
The innermost thoughts of a character can be a valuable tool for revealing their back story and psychology. As long as the monologue is not to self-indulgent, you can reveal key character insights as well as create that emotional tie with the reader that all authors crave. The Inner dialogue created by Robert Jordan in The Wheel of Time series, gives new dimensions to the various protagonist, main characters and antagonists.
Back story is an essential part of a novel, citing the last example above of Robert Jordan and The WOT series, is actually a good resource of examples of back story used correctly. Jordan uses all the methods listed above, in a back story that spans 2000 years
II hope this helps you create richer worlds and characters.
Neil Sehmbhy is a an author who lives in a town that likes to think of itself as a city. Author of the forthcoming Corporation, Jinx and Sunder novels, you can follow him on Twitter @NeilSehmbhy