Tuesday, 16 February 2016

A QUESTION OF HISTORY

Hello, hello, hello Dear Readers! A couple of bits of business to take care of this morning before we get to the main point of the post.

Over on US Amazon The Swan Kingdom is available in Kindle format for the first time (it's been out over there for eight years, believe it or not) and as an eBook in various other formats, so if you're a USian and you've wanted to get hold of the digital version, behold, your wish has come true.

On UK Amazon, Barefoot on the Wind - my Beauty and the Beast retelling set in fairytale Japan - is now available for pre-order (and presumably it's available other places too, but I haven't looked). It's due out on the 1st of September this year, and I'm hoping that I'll have a cover to share soon. Snap it up right now if it takes your fancy, my lovelies.

Onto Other Stuff! Today's reader question comes from a young person whose name I have stupidly lost - sorry, whoever you are! - but never mind, I can answer their query anyway, and hopefully they will still see it.
I'm struggling with including back-story in a lot of my stories as I like to get straight to where the action is, otherwise I lose interest and move on to something else. So how can I make writing about a character's background more interesting?
A very good question and a topic that I've struggled with in various ways through my own writing. Hopefully this means I can give some practical advice on the topic. Hopefully.

So!

The thing about the term 'backstory' is that it has an inherently negative sort of sound to it. Like something unnecessary bolted onto the back of the real story, but which isn't really part of that story in its own right. And that's just not true, as we shall discuss below. So instead of talking about backstory, let's talk about HIStory. Because that's what 'backstory' really is: the history of your characters and your world.
 
Phrasing it that way gives us the big clue as to why filling in the background of your characters can be a tricky thing. History is traditionally considered a bit dry and dusty (and I say that as someone who loved history in school, for the record) and no reader really likes the forward momentum of a thrilling story to suddenly grind to a halt for a chapter while they are given a history lesson instead.

Some characters don't need much of their history to be depicted for everything to work. If you give your readers a contemporary setting and a thirteen-year-old protagonist who is the middle child in a normal middle class family, they will not require a detailed history of this person's life so far in order to fill in the gaps. You can concentrate on showing that the kid's unhappy at school and doesn't get on with her siblings right now and the reader will be happy for the story to move forward from there.

If you hate filling readers in on background information then these are the kinds of characters whose stories you may chose to tell.

But let's say your goal is to present your readers with a scarred, one-eyed mercenary who can kill five men with a pencil in under a minute and has a mysterious glowing tattoo and a soft spot for Airedale terriers.

If you *don't* want to share that person's history with the reader... well, why on earth did you come up with that character in the first place? Because everything about them has clearly been shaped by a very interesting and possibly traumatic history, we will *want* to know what their backstory is. What's more, it'll be very tough to care about them in the present until we learn more about it.

Of course, somewhere between those two extremes - the ordinary thirteen year-old and the battle scarred, glowing mercendary - is where you'll find most people's writing. But what you have to get into your head, Dear Reader, is that history is what makes a character who they are. It's not a separate thing from the story you want to tell. It *is* the story, every bit as much as dialogue and descriptions and action are.

Even in a contemporary world with an 'ordinary' main character? You may not need to fill in the blanks of history for the reader, but nevertheless the reader's understanding of or assumptions about the history of the world and the character shape their perception of everything you write.

You, the writer, really need to be clear on each character's background and what major events and choices have formed their personality and priorities. You may not chose to share all of this information with the reader, but if you don't know it then there's a strong chance the person on the page will seem flat and one-dimensional, without a coherent personality and with no spark of inner life.

Take the time to think about this. Work out these histories. Work out who your fictional people are. THEN you can decide what is vital to share about them, and what the reader can work out for themselves.

Some techniques to consider:

You can try to do what many young adult and genre authors do, which is to kick your story off at the very moment that the protagonist's life actually becomes interesting - the moment that it all goes to hell in a handbasket, basically. An example of this would be Shadows on the Moon, where the first line of the book is: On my fourteenth birthday when the sakura was in full bloom, the men came to kill us.

Nothing that has happened to the character in their past can compare to that, so the reader is happy for the story to grow from that point.

That's a bit difficult to manage for every kind of book or story though. If it just won't work for yours, you could chose to focus very much on who your character is now - making them particularly intriguing or charismatic - so that it is less important to the reader to know where they came from and what shaped them, and more important to find out exactly how their character works now, what they will chose to do next, and how those choices may shape the story.

This is going to take some skillful work, because you need to still give the readers the impression that this person *has* a past, and an inner life. They still need to feel nuanced and human and real. But their past must be something that the reader is willing and able to fill in for themselves because their present is more interesting.

For instance, you could create a famous safe-cracker whose past career is a thing of legend, hinted at in whispers by other members of your cast. This person chooses to live in isolation in a tiny cabin in the woods miles from anywhere and, once coaxed out of retirement, constantly expects betrayal and refuses to get close to anyone. If that same character turns out to be able to change a baby's nappy and sing them to sleep without turning an eyelash, the reader can guess even more about their past. Doing so will give them a sense of satisfaction because it's a story we're all familiar with - and although it's clearly tragic, we'll be more keen to know what's going to happen next, especially if the other characters around them come to their own conclusions about this person's history too.

The reader might still wish they could learn a bit more about this person's past. But if you carefully shape the story in such a way that the action in the present is illustrating this person's character - lets say that the story is about whether or not this person will be able to work with the others in order to pull off a thrilling heist that will lead to the defeat an intergalactic army - then THAT is what we will care about, not the specific details of how the mysterious safe-cracker came to be the way they are.

You don't have to offer us much background in this case because you've actually put it in the foreground via your choices about what to show in the present.

Doing it this way also means that you can give us a character who is capable of plausible change and development during the course of your story.

But let's say this all sounds too complex. It's not the only way to escape having to fill in the character's background in detail. Some characters are presented to us exactly as they are, and we can learn everything that we either need or want to know about them within a few pages.

When you meet that funny little genius Hercule Poirot it's clear to see that the man is a tightly wound ball of eccentricities and tics created to keep the reader entertained while the whodunnit is gradually unraveled. We know he used to be a policeman, and we know that he's actually getting on in years, so he's had a whole life before he turns up in the pages of the first Hercule Poirot mystery. But we feel no need to penetrate the mysteries of his former career or know about his lost loves or why he decided to move to England instead of returning to Belgium after the war. In fact, showing us a young Hercule Poirot (or a young Sherlock Holmes, or Indiana Jones or Han Solo) actually spoils the mystique and makes the character somehow much less interesting than they were before.

For some stories, that's all you need. The readers will embrace the mysterious mercenary who likes dogs but will happily stab anyone who approaches her with a pencil and make up their own history for her precisely because so much is left unsaid. Clearly she is not a character that we are meant to know. She's a vehicle to carry us through the story.

However, this strategy of leaving the heavy lifting to the reader's imagination has drawbacks, too. You have to be careful that in presenting things this way you don't leave so many obvious blanks in the history of the character - traits that don't add up with each other, or that seem to contradict things we know about them in the now - that these blanks stop being a pleasant space for the reader to mentally play and become a puzzle. Because if you present the reader with a puzzle within your story world and then don't give them the solution? They will become very, very annoyed with you very fast. And you can protest that you did this on purpose because you wanted to leave it ambiguous all you want - the reader will feel that you have broken your implicit promise to them and they will not be placated!

What's more, this will only work if the character you are presenting this way has no significant development within the story that you're presenting. Hercule Poirot is always Hercule Poirot - he observes, he deducts, and he reveals, but he himself is left completely unchanged by any of the gruesome and extraordinary events that he witnesses. Indiana Jones is Indiana Jones and Sherlock Holmes is Sherlock Holmes. We don't need them to change - we don't want them to! Part of their brilliance is that they are unchanging and unchangeable.

So if you want to produce work in which your characters evolve and grow and change throughout the course of the book, then this method is out.

You can also try to look at your characters histories in a different way and see if that helps you to feel more enthusiasm for sharing them. You say that you want to get straight to the action. So get straight to the action, then! Don't give us any history to start with. Present us with your thrilling car chase or sword fight and show us who the characters are now, mysteries and all.

Continue to depict them in the story's now, hinting at their pasts and what they've been through. Make it clear to the reader that their history as intriguing and complex and fascinating, but don't tell them what it is. By a certain point both the reader and you, the writer, will find yourself desperate to finally get stuck into the truth of how this person can bake the best pain au chocolats in Paris, climb a building using only paperclips, and swear in five languages, but screams when they see a spider.

Hopefully, having done all this teasing, it will not feel like such a burden to delve into their past and illuminate it for yourself and the reader.

There are a number of methods you can use to do this. The person can decide to confide a bit about their history to another character - a character they are furious with, perhaps, or one they've begun to trust. This is a good way of doing it because it clearly deepens their relationship (yes, even if the truth is blurted out during an argument) and because seeing characters vulnerable inherently engages the reader's sympathy with them and makes them seem more real.

Alternately, they can have a flashback.

Don't panic! It can be a tiny one! For instance, as they prepare to climb the side of the Eiffel Tower using only a handful of paperclips, they suddenly recall the first time they climbed the walls of the Sisters of Bleeding Mercy Home For Wayward Orphans when they were seven years old in order to rescue the bird with a broken wing from the guttering. They remember the flutter of the bird's heartbeat against their palm and smile or sigh. Then they get on with climbing the Eiffel Tower. Boom, you're done.

Little flashbacks like this blend so well into current action that the reader doesn't feel the story has paused at all, and you can work quite a lot of them into the narrative if you do it carefully, meaning that the character's history seamlessly becomes part of the action of now.

If there's just too much history to fit into the narrative this way, you could go for a longer flashback - one that covers a key moment of the character's past and explains a few things about their strange and contradictory quirks at once. If you do this, however, you need to ensure that we already have our sympathies and interests firmly engaged with this character, and that the scene from their past that you chose to depict is both significant and fascinating in it's own right. The flashback is putting the story's present on hold, so we need to feel that this information is vital to understanding the story's present, rather than that it's just been shoe-horned in there randomly.

Finally, if a character's past is so vital to understanding their present that there's no way for the story to begin properly without some hint of it, you could try using the sort of technique I used in FrostFire, where you entwine the character's past and their present so that they feel of equal importance to the reader. You present them as dual narratives - perhaps distinguishing them by using a different font, or by announcing 'Ten Years Ago' or 'Present Day' when you switch to help the reader keep track. You ensure that both the past and present stands of the story have action and unfolding mysteries and changing relationships, so the 'past' sections never feel as if they're stopping the action. Instead, they are clearly part of the action.

FrostFire begins with a description of a recurring, terrifying dream that the heroine has suffered from all her life. We then get a scene from the heroine's childhood - a depiction of a moment when the heroine's young life seemed genuinely in danger... and then something very strange clearly happens. The scene ends before we can work out exactly what it is. We then see an older version of the heroine, searching for something which seems as if it might be linked to what happened to her as a little girl.

For the first half of the book, the mystery of the heroine's strange condition and her past unfolds side by side with the action of the present. Only at the midpoint does the past catch up with the present. Then, the reader understands all that there is to know about the heroine's past and her frightening magic, and the story can fully inhabit her future going forward.

Does all this seem incredibly complex? That's because it is! But it's all part of the craft of being a writer and eventually, if you try to view your characters 'backstory' as just another, potentially valuable part of the story that you're so keen to tell, you will learn how to use these techniques and even enjoy doing so.

And if not, you can always write about the next Hercule Poirot. After all, it worked for Agatha Christie...

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