Backstory—Fiction’s Foundation

The Present, by Thomas Cole (1838)Ignorasphere: Know where it is? Trust me, if you’re trying to give life to a story, it’s not a good place to dwell. Your story won’t be able to breathe well there.

Very early in the process of outlining the story for my historical fantasy trilogy, I ran into a problem. I tried to ignore it, but turns out I couldn’t. I set out to write a story about a young man struggling to cope with his destiny, and a young warrior-woman assigned to be his guardian. But I kept tripping over the fact that his destiny, and the reasons for her assignation, were rooted in what had already happened. They were a product of their world, and its past. I kept telling myself it was simple stuff, which had to do with his father. I wanted to simply move ahead with the story, so I wrote side-notes like: “His father was a rogue chieftain—a raider who conquered a nearby port city.” And to fit the story as I progressed, I would add things like: “His father married his mother purely for political gain.” And, “His father’s followers are still living in the conquered city, and my protagonist has had no contact with them.” And so on. All in an effort to move on.

But notes like these only led to more questions, such as: Why was he a ‘rogue’ chieftain? Why was he raiding? Who originally lived in the port city? What would impede contact between the chieftain’s followers and the son? And on and on. The story just would not properly unfold without knowing more. It couldn’t breathe in the ignorasphere.

Turns out I couldn’t ignore the past.

Fomenting Forefathers: My muse demanded answers. So I started working backward. I named the father (as I explain here, I always start with the names). And I dug into researching my world, and began the process of world-building (which I’ve written about here). Fortunately, I’d already decided that I wanted to base my story in the world of the Germanic Tribe of the Goths during the fall of the Roman Empire. Since the Goths had two ruling clans, and basically split into two subgroups (the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths) during this era, I decided my MC’s father could’ve been the catalyst figure for the coming of this fracture. The son then quickly became ‘he who was born of both ruling clans.’ Of course prophesies are often wrapped around such figures, right? Wheels were spinning now. It was destiny! (Sorry, got carried away there, but such thoughts are good fodder for characters who believe in fate, right?)

Excavate and Lay the Footings First: Forgive the metaphor, but I’m a builder as well as a writer. And I knew I wanted to build something substantial with my story ideas. Every builder knows that to build something solid and lasting, you start with sound footings laid on good groundwork. The process of prepping the groundwork and laying the footings for my trilogy took about a year. I started with research and note-taking, and then named the people and places and drew my maps. Only then could I start laying the foundation, block by block. The backstory foundation took about another year, outlining and writing snippets of prose, often finding problems and going back to insert new elements or correct existing ones. And even though I knew these early blocks would be below the surface, they still had to be level and true. Only after I had a solid foundation could I begin to build my story.

World Without Beginning: You might be wondering how far back one must delve. I suppose it depends on the story. It might only require knowing a protagonist’s childhood. For my purposes, I went back and hashed out my protagonists’ parents’ generation, and their doings and deeds. Much later, after I finished a draft of my trilogy, and while I was going through a first round of submissions, I decided to start another project. I was really interested in further exploring the backstory, particularly the story of the father of the trilogy’s protagonist. How did he become a rouge raider? Sort of like how George Lucas Anakin Darth morphwent back to explore Darth Vader, but without any annoying Gungans or (hopefully) any wooden dialog.

Know what I found out? That’s right—I had to dig back even further. Turns out my protagonist’s grandfather had a sketchy past. There was a love-triangle, an accidental death, accusations of murder. Yep, the angst between my Goth’s two ruling clans has a long, tangled, and bloody history. Just goes to show, no story can exist in the ignorasphere. I’m glad I did it, as I feel it only added richness and depth to subsequent revision work on the trilogy.

What’s It Worth? Besides freeing your work from the ignorasphere, allowing it to breathe and grow, there are a lot of other advantages to a thorough exploration of backstory. For example:

*Enhanced Ambiance—For me, writing epic historical fantasy, I was interested in creating a legendary feel for the world of my story. Careful placement of historical tidbits throughout not only added shading, but color and mood to my story. For other genres and types of stories, backstory might add another ambiance, such as one of technological advancement for science fiction, or desolate isolation for a dystopian.

*Instinctual Context—If you know your world and its past inside and out, you more instinctively sense how your characters will react to situations. This is something WU contributor Lisa Cron refers to as avoiding character amnesia in a great post here. Having an understanding of each character’s beliefs and cultural mores gives you a firmer grasp on their internal and external motivations. Knowing the context of the conflicts, from all angles, gives your scenes a natural tendency toward authenticity.

*Elevated Stakes—A comprehensive exploration of backstory often reveals an enhancement of the stakes. Your protagonists have immediate conflicts, but these may impinge upon the larger picture in ways that raise the stakes. For example, my two Gothic clans are in conflict, which affects my protagonist in an immediate way. But by knowing the backstory I realized the bigger picture, that the Goths faced annihilation at the hands of a looming Roman military behemoth. If my protagonist fails to solve this inter-clan conflict, his people may face enslavement or extinction.

*Bigness—The concept is from a Donald Maass WU post, here. And I believe knowing the backstory gives you a leg up on achieving it. In the post, Don says, “In big fiction the main protagonist generally has several big things going on (plot layers, in my terminology), and a couple of minor problems too. One or more of the major POV characters also is on a personal journey. Think of this as an emotional sub-plot, such as a wound that needs healing. This inner need can generate as much plot as external problems.” Several of my secondary characters’ personal journeys came to light through backstory exploration. I also gleaned much of the nature of my protagonist’s inner journey, as well as the motivations and goals of my antagonists, through that exploration. If I achieved any level of bigness at all, it came largely through grasp of backstory.

IcebergIceberg Warning: A writing friend told me about Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory–the analogy of backstory being like an iceberg, with only the tip visible from the surface. In other words, you can’t show it all to the reader. I like that, but perhaps my iceberg would be magically levitating as the reader progresses, with more and more readily apparent as they go. Much of what you discover and know may never break the surface, but it will have given your story buoyancy nonetheless.

I believe backstory will give your story context, complexity, and authenticity, making it a richer and more deeply involving experience for your readers. But care must be taken. Reveal backstory only as it becomes necessary. Lay the proper foundation, but always keep your story front and center. Stay out of the ignorasphere. Use backstory to shade and add nuance to your characters’ goals, motivations, and conflicts.

Whether you’re building an epic trilogy like me, or a contemporary standalone, through the thorough grasp and judicious use of backstory, we can build a substantial story and strive for Bigness.

How do you chart backstory? Have you ever experienced epiphanies or story enhancements through exploring backstory? Do tell. 

Image credit: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/photo_14533949_iceberg-floating-in-blue-ocean-global-warming-concept.html’>anterovium / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

25 comments on “Backstory—Fiction’s Foundation

  1. M.L. Swift says:

    Just coming out of the fog of pneumonia and chaos of life (my backstory is a doozy).

    Goodness…backstory is so important to me. When I wrote my YA over NaNovember, I did not chart things as I usually do, which is why it needs so much work now. Filling in all the blanks and why things are happening (due to backstory) after the fact is no picnic.

    I’ve done much acting, and the thing I do with every character I play is create backstory, just for my own sake. This allows for a deeper POV, why my character acts, says, reacts, and evolves the way he does. And makes for a much more convincing performance. The lines actually make sense, and are said with the appropriate conviction.

    So I do this with every major (and most minor) characters in my stories, too. My YA piece is planned to be the start of a little series, and without adequate backstory, the rest will fall apart and seem piecemeal. So, although the first is written (drafted), I don’t want to continue with it until the others have been planned and thoroughly outlined. The work that I’ve done on the subsequent ones has already changed some of the story in the first.

    Great topic and post, Vaughn.

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    • Oh no, I hope you’re on the mend, Michael! I can only imagine how much backstory helps you with your acting process! Isn’t it tough to move a story forward in the ignorasphere? I think if I ever to NaNo, I’d have to do some even more extensive plotting than I have in the past. I still consider myself a pantser, but in hindsight I realize that much of what came to light during the process of writing came from my knowledge of backstory.

      Thanks for chiming in first with the great examples, Michael. Here’s to fog-free and less chaotic days ahead! 🙂

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  2. Awesome post, Vaughn. I am digging into the past of my characters right now . . . and reading this makes me impressed with you fantasy, world-creating writers. It seems the possibilities are even more endless for writers of fantasy.

    And I LOVE Lisa Cron’s book. It’s staring at me as I type. 😉

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    • I know how that book stares, Sarah! Doesn’t even work to flip it over, does it? I think one of the things I loved about sliding into fantasy, rather than sticking to historical fiction, was the freedom. None of those pesky historical facts to impede the process of creating backstory. 😉

      Thanks, Sarah, and happy digging! 🙂

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  3. katmagendie says:

    My brother read a draft of Lightning Charmer and he made a comment about the Great Grandfather, and then said, “I’d love to know what happened to make him the way he was, and what he did with *it*, etc etc etc.” And there went my brain, exploding out with all these possibilities – ones that I know I can’t put into the book, but I had hinted at them . . . a little backstory that related to one of my characters, that shaped who he is, but also is separate from who he is.

    My brother suggested a prequel. Would I do that? Probably never will – but I liked that he thought that way – that he wanted to know more, even though he was perfectly happy with what I gave him – a balance – I guess I think it’s better to leave the wanting a little more (but in that cool kind of way) than leave them wishing the whole thing would be over already *laugh*

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    • It says a lot for Lightning Charmer that your brother wanted to see more of the submerged part of your iceberg, Kat. I can’t wait to read. 🙂 And, hey, never say never, regarding prequels. I had a blast doing mine. It may never see the light of day, but it was one of the best things I’ve done (even if it only enhances the trilogy). Although there is something to be said for leaving them wanting more. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

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  4. brindle808 says:

    Reblogged this on Brin Jackson, Fantasy writer & daydreamer and commented:
    Another extraordinary post by my friend, Vaughn Roycroft.

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  5. I believe backstory is as important to a writer as it is to an actor. On screen you may never know the full backstory an actor has created for a character, but it’s there in the little idiosyncrasies that make the character believable. Dribbling bits of backstory (a technique Donald Maass explains in The Fire In Fiction) I’ve found to be most effective. it works to explain why certain aspects of the main story are there without weighing down the main story with a lot of past baggage. I love the iceberg analogy. Thanks for a most thoughtful post.

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    • Totally agree about idiosyncrasies and the dribbling in technique. I’ve had to dump huge chunks of my original prose because of ‘info dumping.’ It was a bad habit, and I may still have work to do to revise it and avoid it in my composing. Thanks for adding such value to the conversation, Bernadette! 🙂

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  6. liz says:

    I always struggle with how much backstory to show, Vaughn, but I agree with its importance. And Bernadette, I keep meaning to read The Fire in Fiction — thanks for the reminder!

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    • As I say above, over-sharing is a bad habit of mine, and something I’m always fighting. But so much good comes just from knowing. I can also vouch for the Fire in Fiction. Don’s books are right on my desk at all times. They’re worthy of revisiting often. Thanks, Liz!

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  7. ddfalvo says:

    What a wonderful partnering post to the one you wrote on world-building. You summed up all the salient points, and then seasoned the wisdom with a few great sides. My favorite is the buoyancy of the iceberg. 😉

    Backstory is part of world-building, my favorite part. Dreaming about the other-wordly types of places I would love to visit is great fun. Knowing how much of that to reveal in a story and when, a bit more difficult. Truth in the story is important to me, so anything I create must have a solid foundation for its existence–and that always leads to the more interesting pieces you’ve described. Don’t you wish we could see the physical parts of our world in a hologram, and reach in and tweak it just so?

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    • I’m sure your work has that buoyancy, D. 🙂 You’re right, though, that it’s fun to do the digging, but the tricky part is when and how much to reveal. I think it does lend itself to truth in the story. Love the idea of the hologram, D! I could use all the help I can get. 🙂 Thanks for sharing and enhancing the conversation!

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  8. In comparison, I’m a backstory minimalist, V. I have no idea if that’s going to work out for me, but it mostly did in medicine, and I’m hopeful that will be true in writing.

    For example, a patient would present with problem A but I’d detect undernotes of problems B through D. Sometimes I could pinpoint and address the incidents creating problems B through D via careful questioning Other times, the patient wouldn’t be ready; yet we still needed to work together. So I think I’m reasonably good at knowing or guessing which way my characters are headed and how that will impact their conflicts without necessarily knowing the why.

    In a contemporary world, I think that’s okay. Often, as I’m writing the climax and denouement, I’ll discover the backstory accounting for all that went before. I don’t see how this could work in your genre, though, where the most basic mechanics of living could be affected by what went before.

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    • Interesting, and I’m sure you have an intuition that I could never have for the my characters. And I’m sure that’s largely due to genre, as you say. But I can see how you would be prone to follow that precedent. Looking forward to the results, Jan! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

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  9. I read your entire post with a grin, for though you had insights I didn’t possess, we also share many conclusions. I’ve six notebooks containing information concerning my world. One is history. Another contains specific character backstory. I see it as seasoning. You need a lot on the rack or in the cupboard, but what’s used is minimal. You don’t set the dish before your guest and bury it beneath salt just because you have it.

    All things in moderation.

    Eventually the threads contained in the backstory connect in the reader’s mind. It’s rewarding when they reaches that moment when they realize the past in your world isn’t random scraps, but pieces from a larger whole lurking in the background. Backstory helps explain character actions now, but it’s also mystery. The same motivation that drives you to explore the past will keep your reader turning pages.

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    • Hi Christina! I believe you were the one, in a past comment, that tipped me off to Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, which I intuitively understood but had never studied. So thanks for adding wisdom to the post from its inception.

      And another astute addition here regarding the unfolding mystery of backstory! Some of my favorite historical fantasy authors are masters of unspooling the mysteries of the past over the course of story. Thanks for the great addition to the conversation! Have a great weekend!

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  10. sugaropal says:

    Or maybe rather than levitating, the iceberg becomes more apparent as your reader “drinks in” the water surrounding it. It is funny that we both talked about backstory this week. My MC’s backstories don’t go back quite as far and are epic only within the context of their own individual histories – but yes, those backstories certainly elevate stakes, produce conflict, and influence motivation. Great post!

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    • I guess when I’m not overtly stealing from you, I’m somehow drafting off of your literary energy, Rhiann. But as Pressfield says, “I only steal from the best.” 😉

      I’m playing around with an idea for a WWII story, and considering it makes me understand how much less is needed, as far as actual timeline history. We all know that it came after WWI and the Depression, etc. I’m thinking of basing it on my dad and his brother (who was KIA in the war), and I’m feeling the epic-ness of their individual stories unfolding in my mind. I know it’s going to take less chronicling, and yet, in some ways, I suspect grasping the backstory may be just as difficult.

      Thanks for so often inspiring me, Rhiann!

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  11. Nicole L. Bates says:

    This is impressive, Vaughn! You’ve put an amazing amount of work into your story. I love the iceberg analogy and I think my problem initially was wanting all of that back story to be available to the reader, as soon as possible, resulting in the dreaded info-dump. I’ve since gone back and cut a great deal of that, leaving behind what the story should have been in the first place (I think), but it helps me to have written all of that back story in order to know why my characters react the way that they do. Just as our histories make us who we are, our characters must have a rich history as well.

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    • I did the same thing in my early versions. I was an info-dumper extraordinaire! Yes, that Iceberg Theory really rings true for me. I still fret over how much I’ve left in, and the trouble with the setup of a somewhat complicated story. But at some point you have to trust your readers, I suppose. Fingers crossed we’ve both hit the sweet spot for allotting in the proper measure as our stories progress. And I hope I’ve learned a lesson for future projects. Thanks for reading and sharing, Nicole! Happy Easter!

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  12. Great post, Vaughn. I had the same problem with earlier drafts of my novel. And I found, like you, that excavating the backstory led to more complex, conflict-ridden, “big” characters. You lay it all out so well here — thanks!

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    • So glad you can identify, Lisa! I love a complex and conflict-ridden story, as long as it’s judiciously delivered. I know the judicious part is something I’ve had to work on, and continue to do so. Thanks for letting me know. Have a great weekend! 🙂

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