Filling in the Background

What happened to a character before the novel starts determines to a large extent what the character will do during the course of the novel. This observation applies not only to a character’s personality traits but also possibly to the novel’s ending, when all is revealed. Because life is compressed and heightened in order to fit within a book’s structure, the old dictum “You cannot escape your past” can be a shrieking cry that governs how the story is told.

Background appears in many guises. A back story can be as short as a paragraph or a half page and as long as a chapter or even a part (as in Part 2, etc.). In some books, the novel’s structure alternates continually between present and past. When a novel is arranged this way, however, the back stories are not supporting units—in the background—but co-equal with the present-day stories. For our purposes here, we’ll limit the discussion to back stories that are dropped into a chronological narrative in a roughly linear fashion over time.

In whatever form it appears, the background of a major character is an essential component of a novel. Since the future is ruled largely by the past, readers want to know the demons that drive a character. A woman in her twenties who fought in Iraq is different from one who attended Smith College. A women who grew up in a family of seven sisters is different from an only child in a broken home.

The details of a past lifetime can be parsed much more finely. We all have private triumphs and tragedies that define how we view the world. So you must provide your characters with those details that make them not only stand apart in the present, but which pull at them from the past. You won’t know what they are, however, if you don’t explore what happened before page 1.

Exercise: Open a new file called “Stories about _____ (whatever character).” Sit back in your chair, close your eyes, and think about what constitutes the dominant traits of that character. Make a list of 4-5 traits. Now ask yourself, “How did he get that way?” Think of events in the past that could have made him unfeeling, for instance. Did he regularly suffer verbal abuse from his mother and/or father? Was he picked on in elementary school? Did a climactic event, such as the death of someone close at an early age, affect him? Then write a story about it. Go as long as you like—you can always prune it back later to fit in the chapter where you want to drop that background story. Then write back stories for those other traits.

“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”
― William Faulkner

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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