grayscale photo of old pictures

Back Stories-or Stuff that Happened Before …

Creating convincing characters is obviously paramount for fiction writers.

Even if a novel is peopled with fantastical creatures, they still need to be believable within the context of the world of the story.

But how much do we really need or even want to know about a character before he or she steps onto the pages of a novel?

How much detail must a writer include to convince that this particular character had a felt life before taking part in the carefully woven plot about, hopefully, to hook and intrigue the reader?

Deep into writing my fifth novel and setting my protagonists on their journey from 1940 to 1945 – a journey for me as much as them as I’ve never written a novel set in an era before I was born – I am having to make decisions about how much back story is necessary.

And how much will simply slow down the plot and be irrelevant or positively irritating.

Of course a certain amount of information is required to give substance and truth and place the characters in some personal context.

And even if the protagonist is born on page 1, the reader needs to know the circumstances leading up to the event. David Copperfield is a great example of the eponymous hero outlining quickly such events and Great Expectations, with the opening scene in the graveyard cleverly and quickly establishes Pip’s situation by reference to the graveyard where his father and Also Georgiana Wife of the Above are buried.

These facts are essential to the story – inciting and propelling Pip’s predicament and progress through life – along with Magwitch’s assistance, of course.

So yes, I need to establish my characters’ immediate background and reason for their relevant circumstance. But what other detail is required?

I tend to draw up a kind of life map for my characters before I start writing. I know when they were born, where they lived as children, went to school. Even details of previous generations creep into my planning.

Hair colour, height, weight are all key for me to know too – in fact, I always have an image of an actor in mind, to give myself visual clues to follow. I therefore can see them as I am writing about them.

But how much of this does the reader need to know? Is it necessary to explain their favourite colours, best friends at school, their foibles, failings and idiosyncrasies? The places they have visited, the holidays taken? Who their grandparents or great grandparents were, whether their eyes are blue or brown?

The answer, I suppose, is only if it aids and sharpens characterisation rather than detracts and delays the plot.

But how does one make that judgement? I teeter between worrying that my characters are too ‘thin’ or that I have overlaid and burdened the story with too much superfluous information about them.

Anita Brookner’s A Closed Eye (a favourite of mine among her novels) is, when you examine it, nearly all back story. The bulk of the novel is a flashback – a framed novel – and yet you are hardly aware of the fact as you read it. Certainly, the characters have remained with me even years after reading it – although no doubt I’ve read it at least twice if not three times!

It’s quite an interesting exercise to think of a favourite novel and consider how much the reader is told about the character’s past, how many small details revealed, and how much is simply imagined by the reader or not even considered as relevant.

In a first person narrative – like both the Dickens novels I’ve mentioned – the reader simply trusts the narrator protagonist to divulge what is important. Unless, of course, it’s an unreliable narrator … which case, what is left out or how their past is conveyed is part of the skill and subterfuge of the plot and for the reader to detect ….

Which brings me back to my current work in progress.

Do I need to talk about my protagonists’ school achievements? Their prowess – or lack of – on the sports field? Their childhood habits and hobbies?

When the reader meets Harriet Swift and Ralph Moss they are both in their twenties. Certain facts about their origins – their back stories – are essential and conveyed in the first couple of chapters or so.

But after that?

I am too indecisive to make clear cut decisions until I have written my way well into the novel.

And that’s why I edit as I go along. Then edit again. And again. And again. Endlessly.

Trying to sort out what is needed and what is superfluous. What the reader should be told and what should be left to their own conjecture.

And as I am now in the realm of historic fiction with the WW2 setting, I am having to research events, habits and customs that might have affected their back stories. No good relying on personal experience for once.

Which is all incredibly interesting and fascinating – at least it is to me.

The trouble is I might be tempted to offload too much of what I have discovered into the back stories of Harriet and Ralph and the rest of my persona ….

I really am going to have to exercise restraint – the story, after all, is the thing and Harriet and Ralph deserve an author who will afford them a future rather than perpetually pull them back to languish in their pasts!

Happy reading!

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