“The past is prologue.” – William Shakespeare
When we are stuck, it is inevitably because some part of our backstory is unclear. Backstory refers to what happened before our story began. A clearer understanding of our backstory will inform our characters’ present circumstances.
The challenge in clarifying backstory is to not force it to conform to our idea of the story. A character’s place of birth, level of education, relationship history, family dynamic, culture, ethnicity, religious beliefs, and political leanings are all in service to our story. Character is malleable; all of this information is changeable.
The act of seeking the ideal character is not something we can figure out. As we inquire into our story, ideas about our character’s past will come to us. They might seem surprising and unusual. They might even appear to want to take our story in a different direction.
Sometimes the appearance of a different direction is really just a stretching of the original idea. We lose nothing by entertaining an idea for a few moments. And yet, sometimes the novice writer freezes here. They want to hold the whole story in a small container. They fear that to add one more idea might lead to a super-saturation point.
Backstory helps bring clarity.
Let’s say that I have a character who feels somewhat nebulous. He is a Senator, running for reelection. As I inquire into his backstory, I sense that while he was married he had a child with another woman, a situation that has been kept quiet for years. What on earth does that have to do with my main story about his best friend, a priest who is dying and wrestling with the decision of whether or not to reveal a dark secret?
I begin to wonder if this is a story about secrets. I wonder what it means to have a secret, and if it is possible to be forgiven when a secret has been held for such a long time and affected so many. Perhaps I wonder about the value of revealing the truth, and weighing revelation against silence. Perhaps I wonder about integrity. Should a man come clean about his past, even if it means it could adversely affect not only his career, but the lives of his family?
All of these questions sprang from the single impulse: “What if the Senator had a child with another woman?” The nature of “child with another woman” in the context of this story might have to do with secrets. In another story, the nature of “child with another woman” might involve issues of responsibility, isolation, guilt or forgiveness. It is valuable to explore not only to how new back story information affects the plot, but also to notice how our subconscious is constantly offering clues that can help clarify our work.
1) Is the backstory information that I’ve included really necessary?
2) Does it belong here, or can I reveal it later?
3) Can I dramatize the way I reveal this information?
4) Can I layer in essential information, thus dropping any unnecessary passages?