Thursday, April 18, 2013

Backstory: the Bad, the Good, and the Silly

           We, writers, are always put down for dumping backstory into everything, right? Well, honestly, backstory is a good thing.

          The bad way to do it is, well, the way most people cliche us for doing it. The Tolkien style of miniaturizing The Hobbit inside the prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring. It's dumping every little detail in.  All at once. At the beginning. I personally don't like to dump anything that may appear undesirable to the reader. Which brings us to point number 1 of  the good way to do it.

           Sprinkle! I know, we're back to the sprinkle thing. Here and there a little detail so as not to drag the action down with long-winded going-ons about what the protagonist's favorite breakfast food was when he was ten.
           Two: disguise it; don't give it to them straight. Cocoa powder is disgusting. But if you turn it into chocolate? Well, that's different. A plain cake is okay. But if you frost it, decorate it, add some fruit or candy on top, it's more likely to be devoured. The biggest part about disguising it is the old and forever true rule: show don't tell. There's:
                     Cindy loved baking cookies because her grandmother taught her how to bake before she past away.
           And there's:
                     Cindy poured the chocolate chips into the batter. The subtle, moist chocolate aroma brought back her grandmother's voice, "We'll just add an extra chip or ten; nobody'll notice."

           So backstory? It's not bad. As long as three: it's necessary. Readers don't really want to know what college the protagonist attended unless it's necessary to the story. Or unless you turn it into a running inside joke amongst the protagonist's friends. Hm. Yeah, maybe not.

           The characters' backstory can relate to what they fear, love, desire, value, regret, etc. Their culture or the way their were raised may have instilled certain values in them. Or maybe they rebel against the values they were taught. Maybe something they saw or something that happened to them made them view things differently. Maybe they worked so hard for something only to fail miserable in the end. Maybe they hurt someone, and they can't get over the regret. Perhaps someone else deeply disappointed them. Maybe they have this strong fear or passion because of something that happened to them.

            Of course not all their fears, loves, wants, values, etc. have to be rooted in backstory, but sometimes it makes them strong and/or more believable. If they have a strong a sense of justice when everyone around them including their friends could care less about right and wrong, it would be hard to believe that they have this strong sense of justice 'just because' that's the way they are (*gasps for breath* run-on sentence alert!). But if there was a good story behind it, it becomes more believable. Because everything with a good story behind is more believable. Like lies. People say fiction is the believable lie (perhaps a post on that later, after character month).

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