Recently, several writers I respect have been blogging about backstory, exposition and simplicity. The first of those posts, by Patrick O’Duffy, got me thinking about what backstory really means. Heading into a novel, it’s quite usual for me to have dedicated reams of wordage to figuring out who my characters are, what they’re like, what major events (if any) have defined them, how they relate to everyone else in the story, and where they might end up. Depending on the narrative, anything from all to none of this information might prove to be plot-critical; even so, there’s a decent chance that a reasonable portion of it will get used. Once upon a time, I’d have been happy calling that backstory, but having read O’Duffy’s piece, the term no longer feels applicable. Or, more accurately, it doesn’t seem to apply in quite the same way. As a word, backstory is suggestive of information that has already been superseded by the coming narrative – the sort of character-blurb you might write into an obliging box on a D&D character sheet in the sure and certain knowledge that anything you say, no matter how personally relevant, will have no bearing whatsoever on the coming adventure. At least, that’s my memory of high school level RPGing, anyway; whatever personality I gave my character would be as detached from the main narrative as if I’d bothered to try and impose a fictitious history on my avatar in Neverwinter Nights. In such gaming scenarios, the importance of backstory is reduced to a fairly binary set of good/evil questions designed to shape your personal morality, such as: will my character kick this puppy? Should I steal the gold from the old lady, or give her more to buy medicine? Will I help the druids defend the trees, or shall I fight their preachy asses? (Note: I am probably the only person in the entire world who helps the druids at that point. Some NPCs just ask to be eaten by bears.)
But writing a novel, it seems to me, is a markedly different endeavour. If the story is analogous to the gaming campaign, then the characters – and their histories – have ceased to be detached from the main quest arc: there are no more NPCs, because every character is a potential party member. RPG campaigns constrain the narrative in that certain characters exist only to help the protagonists forward. The helpful tavern wench cannot suddenly join the quest, no matter how resourceful, brave and clever her backstory might prove her to be. But then, why would you give an NPC backstory beyond what’s necessary to explain the aid they give the protagonist? The answer highlights a significant, crucial difference between pantsers and plotters, viz: for pantsers, the wench can always join the party. Backstory grows organically, so that any random secondary character might suddenly leap into the limelight and refuse to leave without being granted six soliloquies and a curtain call. For plotters, however, such things are fixed from the outset: the relevant leads have already been chosen, and the wench is not among them. Which might go a long way towards explaining why some plotter-writers are leery of backstory – any details they include must, of necessity, be plot-relevant; and if it’s plot-relevant, then it’s not backstory, which instead becomes a label for all the information that had no place in the main narrative. In this context, therefore, suggesting that writers should keep backstory out of their writing doesn’t mean their characters shouldn’t have history; only that said history should be relevant.
But for some of us, to paraphrase Faith from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there is no such animal as irrelevant history. Pantser or plotter, if you’re in it for the characters, then the nitty-gritty of their lives – past or present, regardless of the degree of plot-importance – will always be meaningful. Which is where we come to Chuck Wendig’s post on exposition, because this is not, contrary to how it might appear, an excuse to dump any old crap about the protagonist into the story and call it plot-critical. Exposition is a question of structure, not content: if you’re going to flesh out your characters, then it shouldn’t be at the expense of readability. Relevant to the plot and relevant to the character aren’t mutually exclusive conditionals – in fact, they ought to overlap. But if we were to render the story as a Venn diagram, it shouldn’t be mandatory for the two circles to appear as one: there’s plenty of room for play. As Aliette de Bodard’s piece on simplicity points out, economical stories aren’t necessarily better than expansive ones; in fact, there’s a lot to be said for sprawl.
A slight aside, at this point: the other day, I was mulling over the sameness of mainstream Hollywood films. Specifically: why is the stereotypical Five Man Band so ubiquitous, and why do so many movies keep failing the Bechdel Test? Trying to tease out the cause of the problem – using, as my case study, the appalling Captain America – it suddenly struck me that backstory might be the missing element, with narrative oversimplification a major contributing factor. Consider the following premise: that Hollywood films will usually focus on the exploits of a single protagonist, with any secondary characters set to orbit the lead like satellites. Because of the time constraints inherent to cinema as a medium, this creates a strong impetus to make every interaction count, and if the story is meant to focus on the protagonist, then the natural default, script-wise, is to ensure that the vast majority of conversations are held either with or about the lead. If, as is so often the case, the protagonist is male, this sets the film up for near-guaranteed failure of the Bechdel test, for the simple reason that the secondary characters – regardless of gender – aren’t allowed to have superfluous conversations. This also means that the secondary characters don’t matter in and of themselves. It’s the difference between writing about a hero and his gang, and writing an ensemble cast: the two stories might have the same number of characters in identical roles, but the distinction is one of emphasis. A Five Man Band is there to support a single leader, whose personal struggles dominate the narrative – but in an ensemble, everyone matters equally.
Hollywood is not good at ensembles.
This is particularly evident when existing stories are adapted to the big screen. It’s generally assumed that any adaptation must, of necessity, pare back the secondary character development in order to allow a sharper focus on the Main Plot. Though done in the name of time-sensitivity, what this actually means is that, far too often, all the nuance which attracted people to the story in the first place – the worldbuilding, the detail and the cast as a whole – gets butchered in translation. Audiences react badly to such treatment because they can see what’s missing: there are holes where better characterisation (among other things) should be. But here’s the kicker – this is just as true of original feature films. All scripts go through multiple drafts, and if you assume that relevant information isn’t being lost in those cuts, I’d invite you to think again. Right now, the Hollywood default is to pick a protagonist, deny them backstory, throw them into an adventure with a bunch of NPC Pokemon sans the evolutionary moonstone, and hope that events are strong enough to carry them forwards. This is what happens when we demand utility from every conversation while simultaneously acting under time constraints and focusing exclusively on immediate, rather than past, events; and it is not my favourite thing.
Which is why, to return to the earlier point, worldbuilding and backstory are two of the qualities I look for most in a narrative. Stories without sprawl, while nonetheless capable of being utterly awesome, tend to feel like closed ecosystems. Combine Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters with The Law of Conservation of Detail, add a dash of Chekhov’s Gun, and you can start to see what I mean. Such stories aren’t predictable, per se – though this is can definitely be a problem – but are rather defined by absolute catharsis. They’re murder mysteries without the red herrings, worlds where you can’t go off-mission and explore the map, meals without any delicious leftovers to be used for future cookery and consumption. Speaking of his Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett has said that he created the city of Ankh-Morpork as somewhere that would keep going once the book is closed; the sort of place where the characters have lives to be getting on with even after the story ends. The Discworld might well exist on the back of four elephants stuck to a giant turtle flying through space, but it feels real, because its many stories, inhabitants and cities are – just like our own world – awash in irrelevant detail. To wankily quote myself, I’ve said before that:
The stock premise of epic fantasy – defeating the Dark Lord to save the kingdom – has always sat awkwardly with me, if only because it so often comes to feel as though the world in question only exists as a setting for that one battle, and not as a realm in its own right… Ultimate confrontations with ancient evil are fine, to be sure, but they don’t lend much to the idea of a world which, left to its own devices, will just be a world: one where good and evil are intermingled in everyday human activity, rather than being the sole province of warring gods and their acolytes.
It’s a view I stand by, and something I think it’s important to remember. More and more often, it feels like arguments about writing in the SFF community – such as the recent Mary Sue debate, for instance – hinge on a fundamental failure to distinguish between bad writing and narrative tropes and decisions exacerbated by bad writing, as though the inclusion of specific ideas, character traits or story-forms is the real problem, and not, as might actually be the case, the quality of their execution. Point being, I think we’ve started to become a bit too deeply invested in streamlined narratives. We talk about trimming the dead weight from stories the same way one might imagine some shark-smiled management consultant talking about axing the creative department over budgetary concerns; as though the story is a high-profile office in which can be found no room for cheerful, eccentric sentences who wear colourful shirts on Friday and eat all the biscuits at meetings. Stories without foible, indulgence or quirk, but where everything must arrive at 9am sharp in a business suit with a briefcase. In fact, it strikes me as telling that much of the language we use to discuss the improvement of books is simultaneously fat-phobic, sports-centric and corporate. Bad books are flabby, soft and bloated; good books are lean, raw and hard-hitting. Or maybe I’m just projecting.
In my own writing, I tend to sit somewhere in the middle of the pantser/plotter continuum, which isn’t particularly unusual. Though I almost always start with a single protagonist as a narrative focal point, my casts invariably grow in the worldbuilding process, and while I do write out copious backstory for my original characters, I’m still frequently surprised when bit-players queen themselves, or when planned protagonists turn out to be happy in the background. I chart my main plot points and narrative arc, but leave everything else to chance – often with unexpected results. Some writers are far more rigid; others are far more lax. But if this blog had a point, it was the realisation that the reason my stories tend to end up with so many main characters is because I inevitably become involved with their backstories. As has been pointed out by innumerable people, every character is the hero of their own adventure – and as I’m now nearly 40,000 words into a new novel, jumping between POVs while wrangling multiple events, this felt like a good time to stop and discuss what that actually means. Thanks to O’Duffy, I’ve come away with a much stronger concept of what backstory is – to me, to others and in general. Thanks to Wendig, I’ve got a sharper idea of how to apply it without turning my story into a swamp of boring detail. And thanks to Bodard, I’ve realised the importance of sprawl – not just in the worlds I already love, but in the creation of my own.