Wednesday, August 19, 2009

My character needs backstory!

I thought I'd share a story from my writing life. After months planning the details of a new story - human scenario, alien scenario, alien physiology, language, culture, technology level, etc. - I started to write, got 212 words in, and had to stop. The problem? It felt too shallow. I had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen, in the form of a scene-by-scene description, but I wasn't really feeling my main character, Lynn.

She had no backstory.

She had a job, a general background and knowledge base, but no individual history. And my characters need backstory - not that I ever insert it in pure backstory form in the text, but if they don't have backstory, then they always feel shallow.

Actually, I knew going in that Lynn had no backstory, but I thought I'd just figure it out as I dived in. Unfortunately, writing the opening didn't really tell me as much about her as I'd hoped. So I stepped back, thought about it, and realized two things:

1. Lynn's backstory should hand her an existing problem that could get worse or drive the conflict in some way.

2. Lynn's backstory should reflect my overall thematic issue choice for this story, namely, attitudes toward technology.

These are things that I think apply not just to my own characters, but to general strengthening of a character's role in any story. The character should fit the story. Whatever actions the character must take as the plot unfolds should not be easy, and it's more exciting when characters have something major to lose as well as gain (stakes).

So in this case, I had Lynn working as an engineer on a large-scale project (trying to avoid spoilers here) in which all information was considered highly valuable and worth protecting from spies and incidental observers. I had also established that Lynn was going to be played against the head of information security for the project. There was already an external risk to this information built into the outline... so I decided to get Lynn closer to a form of internal risk. That was when her backstory became clear to me.

Lynn has a relative who is a hacker, and for that reason has had trouble getting security clearance for her project. With her relative now in jail, she's been allowed on the project in a low level position. She's more gung-ho than most, but people are unwilling to listen to her suggestions because she's only been there five years for everyone else's ten. So she hacks the system to try to improve it herself. It gives her a secret - there's no way she can tell anyone what she's up to without endangering her place on the team, because with her relative in jail, no one would believe she's doing this for the good of the project. It also makes her highly invested in the project's success, so that when the external difficulties show up, she'll act to protect her work and that of her teammates. But she still won't be able to align herself with the head of information security, who constitutes a danger to her presence on this project she loves.

At this point I figure I have to put in the obligatory warning about beginning with backstory, or infodumping. Don't do this; go straight to the main conflict. The very fact that you know about a character's backstory will show up in that character's reactions to events.

Because I haven't yet started over with my story (and I will be starting over - bye-bye 212 words!) I can't say how I'll execute Lynn differently with her backstory. But I'm excited to work on it and find out.


  1. Main characters should wear the plot of their story like a coat. Whatever happens, it is about them--they drive the action, they make the decisions, they take the risks. This isn't to say that external circumstances over which they have no control cannot intervene in the story. But those conditions, however cataclysmic or significant, are only wallpaper until they effect the person or people who populate a story. Backstories for characters are invaluable, but working them out ahead of time isn't a requirement for a writer. It's merely a stylistic choice. One might be more comfortable winging the details, inventing in the moment and on the page. But a sure feeling for how the character thinks and behaves is crucial, and should be worked out at some meaningful level before you start page one.

  2. Good points, Eric. Certainly a writer shouldn't feel as if this is necessary for the first draft (even though I did). I'm a hyper-preparer for my linguistics stories. On the other hand, this kind of thinking can also help in the editing process, to tune the fit between plot and character after the guts of the story have already been established. After writing this, I actually took my own advice and went back to look at the main character of my novel - and it helped! Thanks for commenting.