What shapes us into the people we become? Why do some of us end up liking dogs and others fear them? What makes adventure fun for some and stressful for others? What makes us real? It’s our history and the experiences we’ve had in our life that makes us real – our backstory.
When I was around ten-years-old, we lived in Quitman, Texas. The elementary school was on the edge of town, several miles from our home, so I had to walk about four blocks to the high school and catch a school bus which would take me the rest of the way. One afternoon, after I got off the bus at the high school, there was a red Doberman wandering among the crowd of kids. She was so gentle that neither the crowds of kids moving around her nor the strangers petting her bothered her at all. I petted her briefly and then started for home not even noticing she had followed me until I got there. I was thrilled that out of all those kids she had picked me. I begged my parents to let me keep her, and after finding her previous owners and talking to them, they agreed.
I named her Gretchen. I loved that dog. Even now, years (lots of years) later, memories of playing tug with her still make me smile. A few weeks after she joined us, she went into heat. My Daddy, not wanting puppies, locked her into her doghouse. She broke out and ran away. She wasn’t part of my life for long, but she changed me forever. Once I was old enough to get my own dog, I got a Doberman, and that is the only type of dog I’ve had my entire adult life. The yard at my home, no matter where I live, will always be fenced, so my dog has a place to wander safely. There will be no doghouse because my dogs live in the house with me as valued family members. Funny, but until this moment in time, I hadn’t realized just how much Gretchen had impacted my life.
After I was working and able to afford a home, I got my first dog. She was a black and tan Doberman, and I named her Jolie. She was well mannered, and I took her everywhere with me. We lived near the coast, which meant we had to evacuate when a hurricane headed our way. One time we evacuated with friends to Bastrop State Park. We weren’t the only ones with that idea; the park was full, crowded with evacuees. Jolie and I were wandering back to our campsite after a quick trip to the bathroom when three teenage girls approached from the other direction. One of the girls noticed Jolie, started crying and ran in the opposite direction. I couldn’t understand what was happening. Jolie was calm, on a leash, and hadn’t even been looking in the girl’s direction, and yet the girl ran, almost in hysterics. Her friends apologized and said she had been through a bad experience. That was when I realized that not everyone loves dogs. The girl’s backstory was much different from mine.
Are you wondering what point I’m trying to make? This week I started reading Story Genius by Lisa Cron. Unlike the many other writing how-to books I’ve read, this book speaks to me as if it were written specifically for me. She says backstory makes our characters into real people just like it does us. It is their history that shapes our characters into unique individuals capable of keeping a reader interested.
MRI testing has shown that readers who are deeply into a book are experiencing the events of the book as if they were living it, not as a moment of fictional entertainment. They are seeing the story world through the eyes of the character and experiencing it right along with them. Many times, I’ve found myself breathless after an exciting fight scene, or with tears running down my face after the character received an emotional blow. We live the story through them, but we can only do this if they seem real to us.
In fact, Lisa Cron says backstory is so important I need to write those scenes as well. The backstory scenes won’t appear in my novel in their entirety because the novel starts mid-story after the situation has evolved to the point that the character can no longer put off addressing the story problem. But the information is necessary to make the character and the story seem real. I will use that backstory material as bits of dialog, memories, possibly even brief flashbacks to help the reader understand how the character grew into the person she is and why she responds the way she does to the story events.
So, if the backstory is so important, why do most other writing how-to books warn against it. Lisa suggests that they aren’t warning against the backstory itself, but instead, against giving that information to the readers in clumsy ways which interrupt the flow of the story.
The history of my characters has been floating around in my head for months. Because of all that information in my head the characters already seemed real to me, but as I started considering what I would write in those backstory scenes, I could sense the characters becoming even more vibrant – more real. Now, even though it will mean more work for me, I can hardly wait to get started.
As you go through your day, do you ever wonder about the backstory of the people you encounter? Maybe you should; it might make them more real to you. Maybe if we all become more real to each other, this world will be a kinder and more understanding place.
Cron, L. (2016). Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel. New York: Ten Speed Press.