Monday, March 4, 2013

Backing Up Backstory

Someone may read the following texts between my crit partner, Ashley, and me and think we have some warped sense of gossip...

Maybe Grace's real mom went to them when she was pregnant, but they had high hopes for their son and pushed her away without telling him it was his baby?

Ohhh, or maybe the other way around-- maybe he knows but they don't and he's trying to keep them from finding out?

And it gets even worse a few days later....

I think this is sounding fabulous so far!!! I don't know if you need the miscarriage though... Maybe he just has a niece or nephew and when his brother does (committing a crime?) he doesn't want the shame/guilt/punishment to affect the kid?

 Ooh, maybe he felt it as a child...and he wants to break the cycle??

When you have a story brewing, I have learned as I delve into a new story recently, that sketching out the backstory of my characters has proven ESSENTIAL to getting my story off on the right foot. Sure, I may not want to dump all the back story in the first chapter...or the first five chapters...a sprinkling is more intriguing anyway...BUT, as the writer, having my backstory laid out as reference, is a tool of many uses...this much-proclaimed pantster admits!

How many times have you written or read (eek!) a story and suddenly the character is dealing with an emotion, a situation, a spiritual thread that flies in from out of nowhere and yanks you right out of the pov into  "Ah, the author needed some spice here"...or..."Perhaps the writer accidently edited the necessary backstory right out of the chapter before." 

As a writer, if we don't have the backstory hashed out from the beginning, then we might find ourselves hopping over tall obstacles of inconsistency or unbelievability.

Take your backstory tool out of the "low priority" drawer, and discover how useful it is as you begin your novel's journey:

1. A writer who has a solid backstory in mind writes three dimensional characters right off the bat.

If you have a sketch of the hopes, desires, disappointments, struggles, situations, that your character has encountered, then when you start her pov, she is "in" her own skin, with all her baggage prodding your fingers to type out her story and give her:
  • emotional depth
  • spiritual height (or lack for growth)
  • situational width (how does she react within her surroundings, with others). 

2. A writer not only brings to life a three dimensional character when they have the backstory laid out in their mind, but they write a character whose feelings and actions are validated because of their backstory.

If a writer has a good sense of where their character came from, then they are able to steer the character's emotions in a way that is backed up by their back story. If a character is defensive in a seemingly neutral situation, but has no backstory discovered to later validate that reaction, then it will strip away believability of the character, or cause the future reader to think they've missed something.

Every reaction and emotion needs a raison d'etre. There are two places we see it as writers/readers:
  • In the active scene on page--in the moment.
  • In the foundation laid through backstory (even if it's revealed later on. That emotion/reaction "backs up" the backstory once it's revealed. It gives the reader the "ah ha" feeling of...ooooh, that's why she was like that!)
3. This leads me to my last point: Well thought-out backstory gives your writing a power boost when you get to the black moment...or any powerful moment, really. 

You will have a better idea as to what will really devastate your character (muwahahaha). You will stay true to your overall theme throughout the writing process if you know your backstory and allow it to give you advantage in the "what happens next and why does it happen?" Your plot will begin to unfold in an intelligent way, as a series of intertwined events that lead up to the big one, with the backstory backing it all up.

Bottom line: Get that backstory firmed up before you decide to pour out your story. It will save you a ton of rewrites and give you the fuel you need to craft your story world. No matter if you are a pantster or plotter, when it comes to back story hash it out. Because that's where the first breath of life should stir from your characters....
It's where their first breath was stirred, after all!

How do you develop your character's backstory? Conversationally? Grids? Worksheets? 

Angie Dicken first began writing fiction as a creative outlet during the monotonous days of diapers and temper tantrums. She is passionate to impress God's love on women regardless of their background or belief. This desire serves as a catalyst for Angie's fiction, which weaves salvation and grace themes across historical cultures and social boundaries. Angie is an ACFW member and is represented by Tamela Hancock Murray of the Steve Laube Agency.


Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Muwahahahahha!!! LOL...I love it, Angie! You dastardly writer, you. :)

But seriously, great stuff about backstory here, and the reasons to make sure you use it wisely.

I tend to free write when I do backstory. Sometimes I come up with junk, but's like magic!

Lindsay Harrel said...

I'm giggling over your texts with Ash, because Melissa and I have conversations that sound so similar.

I think hashing out my characters' backstory before writing has proven soooo helpful in getting a grasp of who they are. It's the same with real people. I don't feel a friend truly understands me until she knows what has happened in my past to shape me. It's the same with characters. :)

Amy Leigh Simpson said...

I need to start doing this! I always end up discovering new things about my character as I go through and then instead of plowing forward, I have to go back and make it fit. I suppose it's a good thing I like editing!

Great advice here!

Susan Anne Mason said...

What an excellent post! This is so true and something I didn't know in some of my first books.

It really helps you know your character better and like you said, give them believable reactions to situations.

Great advice!


Ashley Clark said...

Great advice here, Angie, and well-said! I'm learning more and more how important some basic plotting is before diving into a story! So glad to be working on all this with you!

Angie Dicken said...

I thought of you when I inserted my evil laugh. ;)

Angie Dicken said...


Oh, it sounds like you all might have the same crazy "gossip" sessions we do!!
I like what you said about in real life...I think that's why I hope to come off as transparent...don't want to waste time with the small talk if I am going to invest in a long term friendship. ;)

Angie Dicken said...

Amy--I did this a little with my last novel, but have really hashed it out with this one. I also had to go back and tweak things...I still love not knowing what's coming next as I write, but the foundation is laid and it's almost like a treasure chest of emotional "costumes" and how my character is going to display them and discard them for a new one. :)

Angie Dicken said...

Writing is such a journey, isn't it? I did the same thing with my first books.
Thanks for stopping by today!

Angie Dicken said...

I owe a lot of this thinking process to've been a great model of backstory brainstorming! Soooo thankful to do this writing thing with you!