Writing Wednesday: Backstory

Writing Wednesday

Happy Holidays, everyone!

The holiday season is a time for reflecting on the past. Sometimes, if we are lucky, we have the chance to reconnect with friends and relatives that we haven’t seen in a long time. Bringing back the past, whether through fond memories, old grievances, unanswered questions, hidden meanings or a multitude of other reasons, the echoes of the past give our lives texture and deeper meaning.

In writing, too – and we can see the same tropes emerge in holiday stories ranging from A Christmas Carol to It’s a Wonderful Life to the newly-released Mary Poppins Returns. The past haunts, comforts or drives the min characters until the climax of the story brings catharsis and the denouement brings either closure or a sense of motion in a new direction, often viewing the past in a new, wiser, light.

As authors, though, we cannot simply be moved by the past and live in the present. The characters’ pasts (and sometimes) futures take shape together as we write and revise. Our process is (often) non-linear, like the alien script in “Story of Your Life.” A character’s life might reveal itself all at once or take shape through many iterations, sometimes winding through possibilities before settling on the course that reader eventually experiences.

In my novel-in-progress, Elevation, the protagonist enters the story under the metaphorical (and sometimes literal) shadow of a space elevator. Its history and hers intertwine to provide the inciting incidents that move the story forward. Without those connections, the characters might drift, or remain caught in tedious recurring plots and conflicts.

In order to draw out my characters” pasts, I’ve come up with 10 questions to ask myself. I hope they are useful to you if you’re working on telling stories of your own.

  1. What does your main character regret most about her past?
    • Makria starts the story focused mainly on the present, and this is the nucleus for her greatest regret – that she did not appreciate the larger wider world around her while she had the chance.
  2. Is there a person from the main character’s past that she would most want to see again? Why?
    • Not at first, but as time goes on, absolutely. I can’t reveal who that person is, of course.
  3. Is the main character keeping a secret from her past? Who is she keeping it from, and why?
    • There is, now that I think about it. There must be. The only problem is that I don’t know what it is yet. There will be a moment, probably next month when it jumps out at me. Who knows what havoc it will wreak on my current plot line.
  4. What secrets are other people keeping from the main character, and why?
    • The true nature of the Space Elevator, and its purpose, aren’t really secrets to the main characters. They’re more or less unknowable. The Elevator has enabled the rise of a peculiar power structure in Makria’s society. The guardians of the Elevator and other derelict technology have secrets that go back for millennia.
  5. What does the main character fundamentally misunderstand about her own past?
    • Makria sees the world in terms of foraging and trade for mutual benefit. She has been, and she has seen her own quirks as personal eccentricities, of no consequence to the larger world. She does not realize that the incidental skills that she picked up while following her passions will be vital in the age of first contact.
  6. If there is a Chekhov’s gun in the story, what is its past and how does it connect to the main character’s story?
    • There is one. I won’t say what it is, but its past could be seen as a symbol of the elevator itself and Makria’s place (for good or ill) in the post-contact world.
  7. If there’s a MacGuffin in your story, does it have a past?
    • It most definitely does. If my characters chase after something, I want it to have intrinsic meaning beyond the quest itself. My MacGuffins will directly shape the next several generations.
  8. Does the character have any bad habits that connect to events in their past?
    • Makria has a tendency to overlook the deeper value of things. Perhaps, like a prisoner in Plato’s cave, she sees only the reflection of object’s value in terms of how much others will pay for it. In times of crisis, the marketplace falls apart, and we find out what things are really worth – and we see who will stand by us. That is part of Makria’s struggle.
  9. Did something happen in her past that she vows never to repeat? How does that guide her decision in the present?
    • Many things occur in the story that Makria finds intolerable. They cause her to question the superficial loyalties and bonds that had defined her life up to that point.
  10. Is there a memory from the past that she would most like to relive if given the chance? How does this affect what she does?
    • As much as Makria struggles to reclaim the power of flight, I think what she would want most would be to stand on the shore of the old swimming hole amid the wildflowers, happily ignorant of the price she would pay for being there.

That’s where I am in my revision so far. The answers might change as I delve deeper into my character’s past, but the point isn’t to find a single answer, but to raise new questions and eventually evoke them in the minds of your readers.

No one answer to these questions is likely to rescue a faltering story, but a constellation they can turn a trite or hesitant story into a unique story that moves on its own momentum. On Friday, I’ll review some fiction (including my own) that hinges on backstory, to see how these stories work the past into the narrative.

Until then, happy reading and happy writing!

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