Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Contrary to popular belief, backstory is a good thing. Now, before y'all call for a lynching party, let me tell you what it' good for and what it's not good for. After all, backstory helps you, the author know your character. What makes her tick? What formed her worldview? Why does he dislike women who have a good business head? 

Let's get the "not" out of the way first. The reader does not need to know the backstory of your characters to understand the plot—at least not in the beginning. A bit of mystery about the character is a good thing. It draws the reader onward to find out why this otherwise nice guy is so antagonistic to the heroine.

I always tell new writers to think of it this way. You're attending a party, and you host introduces you to a new neighbor. You start off the conversation by telling her your life history, and the new neighbor will be in jeopardy of whiplash, looking for the host to rescue her. 

Readers who are bombarded with backstory in the first few chapters of a novel with either ski over it or close the book for good. Either way, your time has been wasted by putting it in.

Now, let's look at what backstory is good for and how to discover it. First, I conduct a character interview (CI). Think of that as a journalist interviewing a subject for an article. In my CI, I dig and prod for the character's secrets and for his or her fears. What happened in their childhood that had a major effect of them?

After I've completed the CI, I write a stream of consciousness (SOC) backstory. This is where I go back two or more generations. People are the product of their ancestors' worldview. For example, let's say your great grandparents lived through the Great Depression. They probably could get more for a quarter than anyone you know. They taught your grandparents, who taught your parents. But did your parents continue that trait or did they, because of their more affluent status, break away from it?

It's within the SOC backstory where I discover so much about my character. Besides their worldview, I learn the lie they believe about themselves, and that lie will color their motivation, and that motivation will drive their plotline. 

In my debut novel, Chapel Springs Revival, my secondary lead, Patsy, comes from a loving home. Her mother is a well-known artist and her father a country doctor. She grew up without them around a lot. One might think her lie is that she's unloved, but that wasn't it. Patsy believes she's helpless – powerless to fix things. In her own life, she falls victim to it by ignoring problems. If she doesn't acknowledge it, it doesn't exist. 

Your characters will either fall victim to their lie or they will try to prove it wrong. Remember, the key is: Lie drives motivation drives plotline.

Much of what I learn never makes it into the manuscript, but if makes the characters come alive. They're three-dimensional and when they are real to you, the author, they become real to the reader. 

One of my beta readers said after reading Chapel Springs Revival, "I love the people. I want to find out more about their lives."

And that's the goal for backstory. 

While a large, floppy straw hat is her favorite, Ane has worn many different ones: hairdresser, legislative affairs director (that's a fancy name for a lobbyist), drama director, multi-published playwright, humor columnist, and novelist. Her lifetime experience provides a plethora of fodder for her Southern-fried fiction (try saying that three times fast). She firmly believes coffee and chocolate are two of the four major food groups. President of the award-winning literary site, Novel Rocket, Ane resides in Suwanee, GA, with her artist husband, her chef son, and two very large dogs. Her debut book, Chapel Springs Revival released Sept 8th.


  1. Sometimes I've wished to be rescued from the conversation of a life story! I'm learning so much about writers :)

  2. Deanna, you've got me laughing. It's happened to all of us at one time or another. That's why I use it as an illustration. :o)


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