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>