Here’s something I learned from a writing book recently: backstory informs motivation, which informs action. A character’s backstory decides what motivates him to do things. I thought that was very interesting at the time, so I tried to put it to use.
Armed with this advice, I started looking at good movies and books to see where they did this. Unfortunately, it wasn’t obvious how they did it.
One thing that confused me was how you wanted to do the reveal at the midpoint, but you want to know the motivations early on– if backstories inform motivations, we need to see the backstories before we see the motivations. That, however, makes for a really corny story where only the last third of it is in the present, and the rest is a flashback. That’s no good.
No, I was wrong about how that advice works. Backstories don’t inform motivation in that the audience can sit there and say exactly what made the character did something, psychiatrist style. (“Because of the inconclusive events of the past year, he has trouble internalizing any sort of penguin war…”) Backstories inform the character and often aren’t seen. We don’t have to know why something got a certain way as long as it can be conclusively said that it is that certain way.
Now, that’s a tough concept. Having the backstory as the submerged part of the iceberg will work, but if the character has more complex emotions than usual, we’ll need more. We’ll understand if the main character hates wombats because they killed his sister– we won’t understand if he’s got complicated emotions because he was good friends with a certain wombat whom he believes is still trustworthy, but the wombats killed his sister. Those are conflicting emotions.
Ah, but here’s the good part. (I’m just realizing this.) Emotions are not always conflicting. For instance, the main character might show his hatred of wombats in one scene as you show his quest to avenge his sister, but in another scene you see his friendship with the wombat. At this point, the reader doesn’t have to know about his dead sister, nor how the character met the wombat– all they have to know is that he hates wombats, but not this one. Fancy that.
However, when the two emotions come together and collide in a single scene, that’s when we need the backstory. The main character reaches a point in his quest where he could destroy the entire wombat colony, but his friend is inside. His quest to avenge his sister conflicts with his friendship. He can sacrifice one for the other, but he can’t have both.
And that’s where you need the backstory. The reader needs to know why the hatred and the friendship exist– at this point, the emotions are so complex you can’t go on without making things too confusing to follow. It’s time to start giving answers.
And what’s that point of the narrative called again? The midpoint. Hey, look, I just talked myself out of my own problem.
This works a lot of the time. For simple individual emotions like hatred or friendship, it will work. However, for personal emotions, things that are already complex when they hit the page, you need that backstory to make sense of it.
Take The Alloy of Law. (It should be assumed that every book I mention is a Brandon Sanderson book. If it isn’t, I’ll tell you.) Right at the beginning, we have a flashback into the main character’s past. It describes a scene that ended badly for the main character, laying the groundwork for much of the emotion in the following story. The author was able to refer back to that when he needed to bring up that complex emotion.
Compare that to the clumsy backstory technique seen in some published novels where the main character almost constantly says, “It looked just like that day in my childhood when…” It’s always the same backstory they’re trying to introduce, but it’s never as strong– you can’t get the same emotion from an in-character flashback like that. A heavy dose at the midpoint or at the beginning, you can work with. Nudging the reader into the backstory gradually doesn’t work as well.
I think the real point of this post is that backstory informs motivation, yes– but secretly, quietly, as long as the emotions can be completely described in a single word like hatred or friendship. There will come a time when things get more complicated, but that’s what the midpoint is for. In the meantime, just show the character’s choices as he makes them, with the emotion, but without bludgeoning the reader with backstory. Your story will be stronger.
Now I want to write a story about that guy with the wombats. (Is it just an accident that I manage to write my best works as examples in blog posts? Bob the cake-maker, Fido the dead dog, nameless guy with wombats…) I can’t wait to try this backstory concept out on my own.