Backstory: Hints Of A Corpse

Backstory: Hints Of A Corpse

Recently, it’s come to my attention that I’m now one of the older ones lurking in the teen writer groups of which I’m a member. Maybe it’s the whole school-uni divide that made me notice it, or perhaps it’s just that I’m two months from my nineteenth birthday and dude, that’s old.

I think one of the reasons this is a new and weird experience is because when I started participating in writing communities (more than five years ago now — how the time has passed!), I didn’t go for teen writing groups, but all-ages sites where being under the age of 18 made you a rarity, let alone being the thirteen-year-old lurking in a corner with her first, abysmal novel already complete. As those communities developed, many of them attracted more young writers, but that wasn’t their primary focus.

It’s only through things like Teens Can Write Too! that I’ve actually been a member of teen-focused writing communities. In the TCWT facebook group, there are certainly writers as young as thirteen. Mostly likely there are younger ones, despite Facebook’s guidelines that you have to be thirteen to sign up. I was on Facebook at twelve, and don’t get me started on my career as an underage Runescape player, so I strongly suspect there are kids on there who are about two thirds of my age.

Wow. That’s scary.

But anyway, this means I often feel I’m giving more than I’m getting, in these communities. That’s okay. I have five years of writing community experience — it’s about time I started giving some advice. I don’t often give writing advice on my blog, because I save that for YAvengers, where I give it from the POV of Iron Man. But I found myself writing a very long Facebook comment the other day and I thought, “You know what, there are probably more people who want to know how to write character backstory in a non-infodumpy way.” So, here goes.

Paraphrased slightly, a member of the group asked:

How would you go about creating backstory/mystery with regard to characters, without putting all the info there for the reader? 

And likewise paraphrased and expanded, my answer, now in the form of a blog post:

The easiest part of this question to answer is that about mystery, because you create mystery in the same way you avoid info-dumping: by not telling people everything. Allow them to ask questions and to guess; hint, but don’t reveal entirely. To use a mundane and everyday example — cupboards.

Imagine your character hid a corpse in the cupboard. (Sorry. Gruesome, but you’ll see why in a minute.) If the cupboard is wide open, all the other characters and the reader know that the corpse is there. If the door is closed, they have no idea. It’s just a cupboard. There are probably clothes in there, so we don’t care. If the door is closed but there is a smear of blood on the floor or a gross smell, then we begin to wonder what’s inside.

Your character’s secrets are the corpse. Drop hints that there’s something untoward inside the cupboard door, but don’t open it at this stage. Just make the reader want to open it, so that they keep reading.

This links to the idea of backstory, because it’s something you don’t necessarily want to shove in at the beginning of the book. You may have seen that Tumblr post going around which says, “I’m sorry, you have to be at least a level four friend to unlock my tragic backstory.” Keep that in mind — the other characters earn that knowledge as their relationship progresses, and so does the reader. The less trusting the character in question, the longer it’s going to be before they start blurting that stuff out to anyone who asks.

Backstory is also more likely to have an emotional effect on the reader if it comes out gradually and as relevant, particularly if the character wasn’t particularly nice in the past. If we’re introduced to a healer tortured by the terrible things they’ve done earlier in their life, we’re going to forgive them. If we’re introduced to a terrorist, it’s going to be hard to like them when they become a healer. It’s about knowing when to start their story — and how much to tell the readers about what’s come before. Let them get attached before you point out that, you know, that guy did actually set fire to villages in the past.

Not that I’m basing these examples on any of my characters or anything. he has issues okay

Let’s use real life as an example. If you read this blog, you’ll know that I have a lot of health problems. (And the reason you know is because it affects my writing, so it was relevant to mention it.) I don’t tell everybody I meet that I’ve got a wrist problem, but when the electrical testing guy came to my room in college to test all my electrical appliances, he needed to test the chargers for my tablet and my dictaphone. I explained that I had them to minimise writing. Likewise, other students in my lectures may notice that I start massaging my writs after taking notes for a while, or that I’ll lean against a wall while everyone else stands unaided because my legs/back aren’t very strong.

Nobody has to say explicitly, “Miriam has problems with her joints that affect her back, legs and hands,” but voila, you’ve got a strong hint that my health isn’t exactly up to strength. (It links to the show don’t tell idea that you’ve probably heard a hundred times.) After a while, if this were a novel, you might want to clarify the situation, and that also happens in real life if somebody asks, “Is something up with your wrists?” or another health-related question.

Going back to fiction, an orphaned character isn’t going to tell everybody they meet that their parents are dead (unless that’s their coping strategy or something). However, when someone asks them about their home situation or they need to get a parent to sign a form or something, it’s going to crop up.

Hopefully, that ought to clarify how backstory should be brought in gradually and when relevant, rather than info-dumped or shoehorned in, but if there’s anything unclear, ask, and I’ll try and answer.

With any luck that’ll be useful to somebody. It always feels presumptuous to give writing advice, especially as I don’t exactly have a long list of publishing credits myself. Hey, no one’s asking you to listen to me. This is what I’ve learned from first-drafting about sixteen novels (I lost count somewhere along the way) and editing many of them, and if it’s useful to anyone, it was worth writing. But if you enjoyed this post, let me know, and I’ll feel less weird about writing advice in the future.

And now, back to procrastinating on the essay that’s due tomorrow which I haven’t yet started. Because being one of the older teen writers does not mean I am any more responsible. It just means I have more work to avoid doing.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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