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character story writing

Never tell me the odds… er, backstory

I don’t think it’s controversial to say that fictional characters are most interesting when they’re doing something.

And yet, there is a school of thought that says that a character needs backstory and background, and that a character who’s already done something is more interesting.

This school is wrong. This school is teaching that the Earth is flat, that 2 + 2 = ham and that Blade Trinity was a better film than Blade 2. (For god’s sake, people, Blade 2 had Ron Perlman and Blade Trinity had Triple-fucking-H. What are you huffing?) This school needs its teaching license revoked, and then the school buildings razed to the ground.

Entirely made of awesome
Entirely made of dicks

Ahem.

Anyway, having talked a bit about why backstory is bad for narrative, I’d like to move on to why it’s bad for characters in general. This comes, in part, from the Continuum panel on roleplaying and storytelling that I was on last month, where I ended talking a lot about how character influences play and shapes story, and about how the actions of characters in play is what drives a game. That left me thinking afterwards about character and how to portray it, and I’m going to write about that next weekend. This post is a bridge, taking us from the negativity of last week to the positivity of next week over the broad river of moderately-negative-but-not-that-much-honest. Well, okay, it’s pretty negative, but that’s just because I like writing the word ‘fuck’.

There are two reasons why backstory is poisonous for characters. First, it’s because backstory exists outside the narrative, as I ranted about last time. Events that happen before the current narrative can’t be experienced by the reader as part of that narrative – you either summarise them, which is boring (‘That was the week I saved the President and was awarded the Medal of Honour for a fourth time, Ginger!’), or you set up a second narrative stream to play them out, which pulls the reader from the narrative they actually want to explore (‘Before we defuse the bomb, let’s have a flashback to how I graduated from bomb defusing college!’). Both of these are tell-not-show errors, because you’re not demonstrating character within the narrative, you’re writing directly at the reader and dumping the information in their heads. And that’s boring.

The second reason, which is subtler, is that backstories don’t have conflict, and conflict – the need to meet and overcome obstacles to reach goals – is what drives stories. Backstories shunt conflict offstage so that those obstacles have already been overcome (or failed, I guess, though that’s vanishingly rare) before the narrative starts. And perhaps that’s one of the main reasons why gamers love backstory so much – it’s a way of setting up interesting conflicts for your character, with none of the uncertainty of whether they’ll actually have to work to overcome those problems. Same for writers, I think – working through a conflict can be hard and demands a strong development of character and story. It’s much easier to have them worked out ahead of time and present them to the reader, forgetting that what’s actually interesting about a conflict is the process of working through it, rather than the actual outcome. That’s why failure can make for a strong narrative, because exploring the process of that failure is way more readable than just learning about another success after the fact.

I’m not saying that every character should be a tyro, novice, farmboy or 1st-level adventurer (pick whichever description you like). Experienced characters are interesting because they carry with them the weight of authority and confidence, and can justify the skills and abilities they possess by dint of that experience. But they, like the farmboy, are starting this story at the beginning.

I'm cooler than the hero. That's my fucking backstory.

Look at one of genre’s most beloved characters, Han Solo – there’s an experienced character that shows off his skills and background from the moment he appears on screen, without the need to stop and tell us about how he learned them. When elements of his background come up, they’re story rather than backstory – he gets hunted by Jabba the Hutt and sold out by Lando Calrissian (shit, sorry, spoiler warning) within the narrative, rather than flashing back to the events or describing them in detail to other characters.  No, those conflicts got referenced briefly in story to create new conflicts that drove the current story – and then, I imagine, they got described in intricate and tedious detail in prequel novels that fans read out of duty. That’s what backstory leads to – prequel novels and fanfic. AND NO-ONE NEEDS THAT.

So how do you portray interesting, engaging, experienced characters without delving into (or ‘revealing’) backstory? Let’s talk about that next weekend.

If you agree, disagree, or want to tell me how awesome Han Solo and Hutt Girls Gone Wild was, get in there and leave a comment.

And if you want a double dose of me being opinionated out of all proportion to any intellectual authority I might possess, head on over to today’s LiveJournal post, where I talk at great and tedious length about Captain America comics, of all things.

5 replies on “Never tell me the odds… er, backstory”

I agree about clumsily inserted backstory detracting from the immediate narrative; I also agree that backstory itself isn’t to everyone’s taste, and that there are narrative instances where its presence is more of a hindrance than a help.

That being said, I disagree that backstory is, of itself, bad. Some stories benefit from it; others don’t, and a lot of that depends on their style and focus. To take the example of Han Solo, the only reason his backstory doesn’t matter in Star Wars beyond the ways it intersects immediately with the plot is because the story’s not about him; Luke is the protagonist, and it’s him we follow. Retell the original trilogy from Han’s perspective, though, and his backstory becomes intensely relevant. I don’t say that to defend fanfic and prequels (I’m in favour of both, but that’s a separate argument), but to point out that sometimes, as in real life, a character’s past history will be relevant to their present actions.

Detective protagonists, for instance, pretty much never start out as rookies: in order for the reader to believe in their expertise, they have to have a few prior cases under their belts. That means that they have existing relationships with their colleagues and the people around them, old grudges with past criminals, and ongoing cases and problems. Even if they’ve been dumped in a new precinct where they know nobody, you have to explain why, which is a species of backstory in and of itself.

Possibly, though, we’re disagreeing on what backstory actually *is*. So far as I can see, you’re classing past struggles and conflicts as backstory, but exempting relevant character facts: everyone has to come from somewhere, and except in very short fiction, it’s difficult to write a story without delving into who and what the character is. Your definition of backstory therefore seems to be ‘anything relevant to the character’s prior development, but not specifically to the plot’. Assuming this isn’t misrepresentative of your stance, this feels quite problematic: firstly, because it does actually allow backstory (Han’s relationship with Jabba) so long as it becomes relevant to the action; and secondly, because it seemingly disallows the possibility of characters whose present selves are defined by past actions. To take another detective example, Kathy Reich’s Temperance Brennan (in the books, not the TV show) is a recovering alcoholic from minute one: this has no bearing on the events of the first book, but it does define Tempe’s character, such that at various points during the story, we see her resisting the urge to drink, or contemplating alcohol. The backstory is relevant to *her*, not the action.

What I’m getting at is, what sort of line are you trying to draw between action-oriented backstory and character development? Characters might be starting *this* story at the beginning, but that doesn’t mean they come to it unencumbered.

Hey Foz!

You bring up some excellent points, and now I have to struggle to make more sense out of a patchy, ranty post that has already got me into one fight on Twitter.

Some stories benefit from it; others don’t, and a lot of that depends on their style and focus.

Very true, and I talked about that a bit in the previous week’s entry.

To take the example of Han Solo, the only reason his backstory doesn’t matter in Star Wars beyond the ways it intersects immediately with the plot is because the story’s not about him

It’s not? Large parts of it are. I mean, I’m no great fan of Star Wars, but it seemed to me to be an ensemble-cast story rather than a single protagonist and his supporting cast.

After all, Han’s the only guy who gets laid at the end.

Retell the original trilogy from Han’s perspective, though, and his backstory becomes intensely relevant.

But you can’t retell the trilogy from Han’s POV. Well, you can, but that’s a completely different narrative – and yes, quite possibly one where that backstory can be positioned to become more relevant.

In the narrative that actually exists – and that’s the only one I have any real ability to talk about – Han’s backstory is 90% irrelevant and only exists through moments of inference. In the narrative in which Han Solo actually exists as an element, his backstory is unnecessary.

I don’t say that to defend fanfic and prequels (I’m in favour of both, but that’s a separate argument)

My beef with those things (other than lack of quality) is that they mostly seem to exist in order to explore the backstory, history or implicit context of a character, rather than exist as a narrative in their own right. To me, that’s utterly backwards – characters exist as a way to express and explore a narrative, rather than narratives existing to express and explore a character. The narrative is a real object; the character doesn’t exist without it.

But this is the kind of weird theoretical base I work from, where I’m largely disinterested in character and story, the things that most readers actually read to experience.

Detective protagonists, for instance, pretty much never start out as rookies: in order for the reader to believe in their expertise, they have to have a few prior cases under their belts. That means that they have existing relationships with their colleagues and the people around them, old grudges with past criminals, and ongoing cases and problems

Counter-argument: Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, one of the original archetypes of the hard-boiled detective genre. Chandler never gave him a backstory or had any interest in defining his past, even for his own sake; Marlowe gets all of three lines of backstory spread out across six novels. Instead, all the character establishment and development takes place directly in the narrative, through Marlowe’s actions, interactions and internal voice. No old grudges or existing relationships, but everything fresh in the moment. And these are some of the most seminal and influential works in the genre.

You say that you can’t have those things without backstory, and I agree that that’s pretty much true. But I also think you don’t need those things to have an engaging character in an effective narrative.

And like I said at the end, I’m not saying every character has to be a rookie; I’m saying that the assumption of experience can be part of the character concept, and expressed without the need for explication or justification. Superman doesn’t need to have a pile of formative adventures before his first appearance; he starts off as Superman, and his stories are about taking that level of ability and experience and building upon it from the first panel. (Ditto Batman, who didn’t even have an origin story for his first six issues.)

everyone has to come from somewhere

Real people come from somewhere; characters are made up. They don’t come from anywhere but the writer’s imagination, and they can come from there fully-formed with a complete personality and set of abilities that don’t require narrative justification.

and except in very short fiction, it’s difficult to write a story without delving into who and what the character is

‘Who and what the character is’ is something you demonstrate through action, through dialogue, through narrative – you delve by showing.

Backstory is who the character was, before the narrative, and I think that’s very separate and often superfluous, and something that 9 times out of 10 gets demonstrated through telling.

Kathy Reich’s Temperance Brennan (in the books, not the TV show) is a recovering alcoholic from minute one: this has no bearing on the events of the first book

That’s a good element of character, certainly. (Although, a character called Temperance who’s a recovering alcoholic? Really?) In fact, it’s so good that I wonder why it has to be relegated to backstory, rather than being something the character confronts and overcomes in the story. It seems to me that the dramatic potential of that internal conflict would be better realised in the narrative itself, rather than being over and done with before we even start.

That’s what I’m trying to get at, even if badly. Conflict creates drama, but conflicts happen within the narrative. Backstories contain conflicts that have been overcome, and all the drama they held is gone. Those ideas belong in the story you’re actually reading, not the story that never got written and only gets referenced in footnotes.

What I’m getting at is, what sort of line are you trying to draw between action-oriented backstory and character development?

Well, I… um, I’m not sure. Most of this has just been thinking out loud and overly aggressively. The blustery, lemme-tell-you-what-I-goddamn-think authorial tone has its benefits, and it’s fun to write, but it seems to get in the way of making my points clearly, possibly because my points aren’t that clear to myself to begin with.

But in the end, I think action and character development belong within the text, not outside the text, and I think that too often backstory and ‘fully realised characters’ are held up as something that all writers should create and incorporate into their work. I think it’s very possible to do without those kinds of things, and I find that I’m the most engaged by narratives in which characters’ stories are developed and realised completely within that narrative, rather than through reference (explicit or implicit) to backstory, and to assumed texts that to my POV are illusory.

Does that make sense? Probably not.

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