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


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.

story writing

Story now

Before I left Brisbane to move to Melbourne, I worked for about a year for a human resources subdivision of the state government. I worked with a bunch of people that were largely anonymous, a few that were fun to have a drink with, a racist slag and a gormless twat.

This post’s about the twat. And about writing. (Mostly writing.)

So the twat – I’d tell you his name, but I’ve forgotten it – wasn’t exactly unlikeable (unlike the racist slag), but he was a world-class shirker. We worked in two-week blocks; by the end of every second Wednesday, paperwork had to be processed and records updated so that people would get paid properly and on time. And every second Wednesday, there would be some reason why he couldn’t get things done, or couldn’t come in to work. He had the flu. His car broke down. He had to work on a special project. He peaked, frankly, the day where he faked hysterical blindness by 10am, saying that oh god he couldn’t SEE and had to go to the hospital. We went through his desk that afternoon and found months worth of unfinished jobs that the rest of the team had to rush through, and we heard through the grapevine that once out of the building, his vision was miraculously restored and he went to the pool instead.

You might think that he would have been fired after this event, but that’s not how the QLD public service worked at that time.

Anyway, despite all this, the twat was likeable enough, and one day we got to chatting about books and writing. He said he’d quite like to write a book someday, and that he’d read about what needed to be involved – premise, character, hooks, revelation of backstory etc. It was like hearing a parrot rattle off the Cliff Notes version of McKee’s Story, with no understanding that writing involved not just these mechanical elements, but also some skill, some imagination, and the dedication to sit down and actually write without calling in sick with a phantom pregnancy or something. I smiled, nodded, and eventually fucked the hell out of there and moved south.

However, one thing stuck with me from that interaction – the phrase ‘revelation of backstory’, and the notion that this was a necessary part of any work of fiction. Because it immediately pissed me off, and it still pisses me off. Which leads me into the actual point of today’s post.

Backstory sucks. There, I said it. And more than that, the presumption that backstory is somehow vital and necessary to a story, to the point where ‘revelation of backstory’ is something to be planned and meted out over the course of a novel, is something that makes me want to smash library windows. Genre is terribly prone to the narrative kudzu of backstory, usually in the variant form called ‘exposition’, but it can strike anywhere. And like a weed, it needs to be purged with fire.

Story is what’s happening now; what your characters are doing, what they want, where they’re going, how they’ll get there. Whether written in present or past tense, the story is the immediate moment of your narrative. It moves, it carries, it changes, and the reader goes with it. Backstory, on the other hand – the revelation of what the characters did before this point and what made them this way – is about what happened before and outside the story. It’s the past past tense, the stuff that’s gone before, and when you stick that into the story, you hit pause on your narrative and cut a hole in it that bleeds out energy and pace. Story goes forward; backstory stops, pulls you out, and robs you of interest in getting back into the flow again.

There are exceptions, of course, and stories that exist primarily as a way of exploring backstory, such as Iain M. Banks’ Use of Weapons (perhaps his finest SF book). Those work because they embed the backstory within the narrative, rather than outside it. It’s also important to distinguish here between backstory and mystery. Backstories exist to illuminate or inform story; mysteries exist to be solved/explored as part of the story. Backstory is external to story; mystery is internal to story. Stories where the characters bring history to light, or investigate and solve mysteries that involve their history, are fine because that’s what the story is about.

Of course, it’s normal for a writer to feel that a character’s motivation and past are important, and that they need to be demonstrated. And these things are important, and should be demonstrated – in the story itself. A character’s actions and personality reflect and demonstrate who they are and where they come from far more than any infodump or flashback to three years earlier or their seminal childhood events. Backstory doesn’t do this; it doesn’t move things along, but provides justification and explanation of the narrative. And that sounds positive, but the narrative doesn’t need to be justified or explained, it needs to be experienced. It needs to move, not stop and ruminate on how it got here in the first place.

One of the decisions I made right at the start of Arcadia – my novel-in-progress, or more accurately in-stasis at the moment, but I plan to fix that – was to eschew backstory and its staggered revelation. The primary character’s upbringing and childhood are hugely important to her, and absolutely propel her into the start of the novel – but then that history ends, and the story is about what she does now and the mistakes she makes. Arcadia is about runaways, but Gwen is running towards something, not away from something, and her past is touched on only when the narrative actually brushes up against it, and even then only briefly. The other main character, Pious, is definitely running from something, but I made it something he couldn’t communicate effectively; all we get to see is Gwen’s assumptions about it, and how she uses those assumptions to make decisions in the immediate moment. Usually very bad decisions, because I’m kind of a prick to my characters.

In the end, every word you spend on developing a character’s or situation’s backstory is a word you’re not spending on the actual character or situation. Every word that doesn’t push the story along actually holds it back, and the supposed depth it offers is an optical illusion. When things happen, when people change, when the story rolls relentlessly down an unpredictable track – that’s when the reader learns why they care about where things are going, and stop thinking about the freeze-frame glimpses of what went before.

That’s the truth. Strike me hysterically blind if I’m wrong.

genre writing

Genre (part 3) – Let’s you and him not fight for a change

And for one last shake of this ragged and bloody bone before moving on to different topics, let’s talk about literary fiction. Specifically those works held up as ‘literary’ by critics and readers, rather than ‘mainstream’, which basically means books you can buy in Kmart. And let’s talk about why they’re much less of an enemy to genre fiction than genre fiction’s fans are to themselves.

One thing I saw that saddened me while on the genre panel at Continuum was the attitude from a few audience members about how literary fiction was pretentious and boring and not as good/smart/fun/whatever as genre fiction. I had kind of hoped we were finally getting away from that kind of chip-on-the-shoulder defensive nonsense, but I’m not surprised that it’s as thick on the ground as it ever was.

Genre fandom, or even just genre appreciation, can become a form of tribalism, of personal identification, and part of tribalism is the defensive stance against things from other tribes. You sometimes see it within subgroups of a tribe, such as a comics fan who’ll read anything Marvel but never touches DC (or vice versa), but you see a lot more of it against the real invaders, the true tribal outsiders that dare to be popular and critically acclaimed despite not having any cyborgs or elven princesses in them.

I’ve heard genre readers say, in all seriousness, that people only read literary fiction because they want to look intelligent, or because they want to impress girls, or because they have no imagination. That literary fiction is all about middle-class women having affairs and worrying about the drapes, or about liberal white guilt, or just artwanky fucking about with postmodernism and footnotes. (Although they usually shut up about the footnotes when you mention Terry Pratchett.) Above all, they moan that literary fiction doesn’t have enough story, enough ideas, enough fun.

Even if this were true – and I defy anyone to come away from Wonder Boys or The Dumas Club or The Solitudes and complain about the lack of ideas/story/fun in those books, to name but a few – it’s a claim that relies on circular definitions. It presupposes that the point of a text is to deliver readily accessible things like ‘ideas’ and ‘story’, which are the things that genre texts (from all genres) focus on, so that a text that delivers less of those things (or just does so in a less immediate and explicit fashion) is thus a failure, as though those are the only reasons to read a book, or see a film. Identity politics and tribalism; if you’re not with us, you’re against us. If you like this, you have to hate that. If you don’t like this fun thing, you must hate all fun things, and you’re not the one who gets to define ‘fun’ because you’re not in the Fun Tribe. Fucking funoclast.

And then there’s the claim – at best silly, at worst wilfully pernicious – that ‘literary’ fiction is a genre. If that was the case, then we could draw lines of meaningful similarity within any two works in that genre cluster. So what’s the link between Middlesex and Trainspotting? Between The Corrections and The Shadow of the Wind? Between The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Love in the Time of Cholera? What are the common themes, common tropes, common conventions? Or is this just the drive to break up every group into tribes, to validate one’s own personal identification with a boundary to say ‘well, everyone else does it too’, to reduce everything to different colours of soccer jerseys rather than consider the possibility of different sports?

The most you can say about literary fiction (or genre-less fiction or whatever you want to call) it is that it tends (tends) to be work that focuses on underlying themes rather than overt plot or distinctive elements – that it’s about what things mean, rather than which things happen. But what those things are, and what they mean, and why that meaning matters, changes from writer to writer, book to book, even reader to reader. There’s no shared agenda or set of elements; just the desire to create this story, this way, this time. The same desire genre writers have. The same desire every writer has.

(You could also, if you’re feeling mean (and I often do), argue that it’s a field of writing where the bar of quality set a bit higher than in popular/genre fiction, where too often bad writing gets excused because the story has great ideas or a really cool vampire. Sure, there are shitty literary works – I can’t comprehend how Ian McEwan gets sales, let along awards – but fantasy can’t be snooty about good and bad when Cum-Drunk Sluts of Gor gets a bye ‘cos it has swords in it. But I’m not going to argue that. I’ll be good.)

Shit. All I’m doing is ranting now, I admit it (and for like 1000 words). I’m not saying anything useful because this kind of antagonism just fills me with antagonism in return. And it pisses me off, but more than that it makes me sad, because genre fiction can be smart and well-crafted and inspiring and, yes, fun, and I want to see its readers exalt those elements and revel in them, to proselytise (without being creepy) about how enjoyable their favourite book/show/movie/text is and draw other readers/viewers in to share that joy.

And every time they – we – descend into this let’s-you-and-him-fight tribalist bullshit we do ourselves, and those works we love, a disservice. Maybe if we knock off the identity politics, talk about what matters to us, and stop insulting those with the temerity to like something different, we could all start having a better time.

Well, everyone but me. I have blog posts to write, and I’m so good at being a sweary smartarse, after all.

On that note, I’m done talking about genre and its value for the moment. I may come back to the topic some day, but not for a while.

Next time – no more than 2-3 days, I promise – I’ll whack up some flash fiction, talk about some kind of regular schedule, maybe tinker with the theme some more and say ‘fuck’ a couple of times. Get excited.

genre writing

Genre (part 2) – Let the burial commence

(Sorry for taking so long to get this post written; real life has required much of my precious time and sobriety of late. I’ve been editing a tonne of maths books, spending a weekend playing World of Warcraft in Adelaide, and right now I’m on the Sunshine Coast attending a conference. Okay, technically, lying in my hotel room bed half-pissed after attending a conference. So, you know, I have a pile of excuses. It’s not laziness. Well, not just laziness.)

Okay, so I said last time that while genre is flawed, and a blunt instrument, that it still serves as a function as a filter and a way to guide decisions about what to read/view next.

But the thing about blunt instruments is that they’re clumsy and imprecise, they leave scratches on the furniture when you drop them, and they leave dents in your baby’s head when you clamp down to pull him/her into the world. And yes, I’m aware this metaphor is no longer working.

The thing is, when you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail, or at least a thumb – and when your primary classification and filtering tool is genre, everything starts to get assessed by what boundary it falls within and what label it should attract. And the notion that something doesn’t fall within a boundary, or crosses a boundary, becomes discomforting and less acceptable.

The desire to rigidly codify genres is something I see a lot, along with statements like ‘well, that’s not really science fiction then’, or ‘I prefer to call that ‘science fantasy’’, or ‘Twilight’s not proper horror because the vampires sparkle and it’s all about girls and feelings’. And that’s just confining things to the big three nerd genres; bring in other genres, like romance or crime, and whole new subgenres like ‘paranormal romance’ get invented to prevent nerd germs cross-pollinating and ruining the sacred purity of a construct invented to make it easier to sell books in stores.

Add to this the personal identification some people make with a set of boundaries: ‘I only read science-fiction’, ‘I don’t read horror novels’, ‘We eliminated all the Twilight fans from our fan group during a series of bloody purges.’ And if it seems like I’m picking on people who don’t like Twilight, well, I don’t like Twilight either, but let’s pillory the books (and those who like them) because they’re appalling fuckingly written, not because they bridged the gap between romance and horror and made purists of both genres feel like they weren’t in charge of the label any more.

Genre doesn’t benefit from being a tight codification of rigid rules; all that does is put iron rules in place for marketers and cover designers, who need to know the right proportion of rockets to swords to vampires for the artist. For the rest of us, who above all else (and this can be argued, but I have to keep believing it) want to read good stories, genre labels are more useful when they’re broad; genre boundaries are more useful when they’re porous.

I’m going to quote commenter David from the last post:

We need to stop thinking in Boolean terms, and instead think in terms of fuzzy set theory.

Take Star Wars.

It has spaceships and robots and laser battles. It also has magic. But it has more sci fi characteristics than it has fantasy characteristics, so it gets shelved in the sci fi genre.

Genre is about clusters of similarities, rather than exclusive boxes.

(If you thrill to the thought of me repeating your words to make my arguments better than I could, well, leave a comment! And possibly pursue some kind of therapy.)

Close clusters of meaningful connections make for a more useful concept of genre than rigid definitions inside prescriptive boundaries. That’s a mission statement. So is the fact that, as a writer and a reader, I want genres to include lots of different things, so that I can read and write fun stories without needing to define where they belong and what subgeneric (is that a word?) group they need to be relegated to.

Because, in the end, the story is the thing – the story and the way it’s told. Everything else is distraction.

One more post about genre is on the cards – hopefully written faster and more coherently than this one – then maybe some new flash fiction in the coming days. Blogging regularly is tricky, because I only have a limited supply of wisdom, and usually I use it up by thinking ‘Actually, I’ve had enough to drink now, I should just go home’. But I’ll try to keep some in reserve for you guys. Promise.


genre writing

Genre (part 1) – I come not to bury genre, but to praise it a little bit

As I mentioned last time, I was just on two panels at Continuum 7 on the weekend- one on genre and one on roleplaying. The roleplaying one has sparked some thoughts about character and narrative that I’ll try to crystallise next week, but I thought I’d write a bit this week about some things that got brought up at the genre panel, along with some things I didn’t manage to discuss.

So. Genre. Despite the fact that I read a fair bit of SF/F/H/other-letter, and write it as well, I don’t have a strong interest or affinity for genre as an umbrella concept or label. I’ve never really been comfortable with these crude, broad filters that basically say ‘hey, you liked that book with spaceships, so you should read this book with spaceships in it’. Or it has vampires, or dragons, or Batman. (Okay, admittedly I’ll consider reading anything that has Batman in it.) It’s a very surface appraisal of a work that has everything to do with obvious motifs and tropes, and very little to do with deeper themes or, most importantly of all, quality. Because what I want to read, first and foremost, is good fiction, well-written fiction, and if the writing is good I really don’t care if it’s about nurses or cyborg wendigos.

…and yet, I read and write genre fiction. So why, given that attitude, do I keep coming back to the wendigos rather than focusing on the nurses? And why does genre serve a purpose?

Because crude and broad or not, we need filters sometimes to make decisions about what to read/see/play next, especially as the bookshelves become digital and the range of available texts broadens to the point of incomprehensibility. With more material available to read this year than there had been in the rest of human history, we need some way of winnowing it down and picking out what we want. And unfortunately, ‘well-written’ is a very idiosyncratic filter that has different meanings to everyone who applies it, and the core themes of a work can be interpreted a large number of ways. Genre may be simple, but it works, because even if you can’t agree on the allegorical subtext of Lord of the Rings, we can all agree that it has elves and swordfights. If that’s what you really liked about the book – and there’s nothing wrong with liking elves and swordfights – a basic label that tells you this other book has elves and swordfights works, even if the core themes are completely different and the writing is shit. And if you come away thinking that that book was bad, then that’s a step towards finetuning your filter to winnow out the books that don’t give you what you want.

On top of this, we have the increasingly-rapid change to reader-controlled labels, where it’s the audience that decides how a work should be tagged on online stores and e-book libraries. (And often the author too, but their voice is one among many and doesn’t carry much extra weight.) That’s a powerful tool that helps us group like texts together, and in multiple overlapping bodies, that physical bookstores can’t do. But at the same time, it means that we’re drifting away from fairly well-defined genre labels (which are crude but predictable) to an increasingly large array of subgenre labels, which are precise but far less defined. More to the point, they’re far more individually defined; each reader has their own vocabulary and critical notion of what constitutes a subgenre, and each new tag is another small set of personal preferences dressed up as a real thing.

Broad genres are glyphic – they say a lot, but in a compact, easily transmittable fashion. They’ll have individual spins on it, sure, but two readers will develop reasonably similar conceptions of a body of texts if you say ‘science fiction’ or ‘romance’ or ‘Western’, conceptions that will share a lot of core tropes and themes. You can chain those glyphs together and still retain meaning, but it starts to get vaguer – ‘Western romance’ is going to convey some core meaning, but the edges start getting bigger and fuzzier, and the themes get cloudy.

But subgenres have a lot less utility, because they take out some core elements of a genre and bring in others, and the meaning behind the word hasn’t been nailed down and codified by millions of readers over decades of use. Terms like clockpunk, faithpunk or dickpunchpunk start to promulgate because they sound like they mean something more than a flat, boring genre label, but instead they end up as white noise in a tag list, arguments on web forums, and buzzwords dropped on Twitter to attract more readers.

Except for my work, of course, which is the purest, most genuine dickpunchpunk. I have a manifesto and everything.

I want to keep talking about this, but this post has already taken three days to write thanks to interruptions and a short attention span. So I’ll break it up into pieces and come back to it in a few days – where, after reluctantly lauding genre here, I’ll talk more about how it sucks. It’d be good to get some dialogue going on this, so please, hit the comment button and have your say.