“The past is prologue.” – William Shakespeare
When we are feeling stuck, it is inevitably because some part of our backstory is unclear. Backstory refers to what happened before our story began, and is often revealed through exposition. 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 are 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. Nothing is lost if we entertain an idea for a few moments, yet I am frequently surprised at how rigid new writers can be about this. It is almost as if they are trying to hold the whole story in a small container, and fear that to add one more idea might lead to a super-saturation point.
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 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. Perhaps 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 that it has affected the lives of many people. 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 the “child with another woman” circumstance 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 be attuned not only to how new backstory information affects the drama, but also to its deepening of the greater meaning at the heart of our work.