Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Backstory and Emotion

Think about who you are? What has caused you to act and react as you do? What has given you your values and beliefs? What motivates you to desire and long for certain things in your life? I think most of you will give the same answer—your past which in fiction is backstory.

Backstory is creating a life for your characters before the book ever begins. It’s knowing details about their upbringing, their relationships, their family structure, their experiences, their religious upbringing, family discipline style, family dysfunctions, health of character and family members, failures, successes, weaknesses, strengths, and even birth order. All of these factors play in our personal lives, and in the same way, they are an important part of who your characters are.

It is our past that motivates us to desire certain things. If we had a parent who believed success was accumulating money, it is logical that we might also want to prove our success in the same way. If accumulating money caused family problems—the father was absent from the home, the father involved himself in illegal situations, the father became an alcoholic due to job stress, the father committed adultery while climbing the ladder to success—then this can put a different spin on what is success and we may stir away from seeking money as a factor in our success.

If your character had no talent in sports, he could easily grow up fearing situations, even in social life, when he’s expected to join his friends or family playing softball or badminton or any kind of sport. He fears this because he has been a failure. If a young woman has had unsuccessful relationships and gives her heart to a man who rejects her, she will most likely approach the dating and relationships with greater anxiety and negativity than someone who’s never experienced this kind of failure.

If you were raised in a home that was not demonstrative with emotions, you might also have a difficult time showing your feelings to others. This can be part of your character’s upbringing as well. If your character grew up in a dysfunctional family that kept secrets about dad’s alcoholism and if the character learned to hold back fears and emotions regarding dad’s problem, then he will most likely do this later in his life. He will feel shame for his father’s problem because secrets are things that set us back. They keep us focused on the past and not the future. This can cause conflicts in your character’s life and thus create emotion for both characters.

As you develop characters, go deep into their past and create details that will help you understand how this character will react in various situations, how this character will strive for his needs and goals, and how this character will demonstrate his emotions depending up his past upbringing and experiences. This will help you show real life emotions that are based on realistic motivation. Authors want characters to be believable and compelling, and this happens with well-developed backstory.


Lee Morrison said...

How true, Gail.

When I dig into my characters' backgrounds, they start talking to me like they've just been waiting for me to speak to them.

It doesn't happen until I look into their background and what has motivated them.

Great post.

Wishing you all the best,

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Lee, This is how it should be. When we dig, we learn the truth about these characters and the truth is what makes them real and believable. Keep digging and keep listening. You'll write great books.


CG Walters said...

Gail, I agree. Getting to know the individuals in the story allows them to start telling the story.
Peace and wonder,