Backstory: From Cardboard to Who Cares?

Of the many, many webcomics* I follow, Sheldon, by the talented and beyond-awesome Dave Kellett, is probably my favorite.  Janie loves it, too, and often requests that we read one of our many printed collections of the strip as her bedtime story.

It’s fun—we do the voices.

One of the reasons I love this comic is that the author is as big a geek as I am and riffs on all the cultural icons of geekdom, up to and including Star Wars, Star Trek, and, of course Lord of the Rings.**

Last night, we landed on this strip:

Click the image above and read through the arc—it’s six strips long, ending on this one:

Exaggeration aside, you know damn well that Tolkien knew the backstory of every single creature in LOTR, down to what each one had for breakfast—and second breakfast—the morning of the battle of Minas Tirith.  Even Tom Bombadil.

Writers are told to create a backstory for our characters, too—even if the character is a minor one.  Alison Janssen wrote a gorgeous post illustrating why:

Think about your character like this: He is a very small ocean when he’s young and inexperienced. As he moves through time and experiences life, the coasts surrounding him widen, and the sea floor drops. His ocean gets bigger as his character grows, containing more saltwater.

Now think about the formative events of his life — the stuff that happened to him before the story you’re telling in your manuscript. The kinds of things that led to the quirks and traits he possesses in the story you’re telling . . .   Imagine each of those events as a drop of colored liquid in the character ocean. The larger the impact of the event, the larger the drop, and the more viscous the liquid . . .

And it’s not just the immediate, most recently dropped pool of liquid that will inform your character’s actions, behaviours, and perceptions. Every drop of liquid, even when dispersed, will have changed the overall makeup of the character ocean. Wave patterns, currents, the flora and fauna — everything’s related.

This is heady stuff for writers!  Whether you make it up on the spot or your characters tell you more about themselves as you go, characterizations are nothing but fun.  And we’ve all become wary of cardboard characters and flat characterizations.  There needs to be something behind those baby blues, right?

BUT . . .

While Tolkien wrote in almost every possible historical, genealogical, and personal detail for his characters—including Tom Bombadil—it was the early 1950s. And he was Tolkien.

Currently, we aren’t supposedto use a character’s entire backstory—unless that’s what the story is about—because an infodump slows  the pace to a crawl while the reader tries to process everything,  like a kid trying to eat a sundae through brain freeze.  It can be done, but it’s not as enjoyable as usual.  And most backstory isn’t important to anyone but the characters and their anxious parent author.  It’s natural for us to want our babies to show off for the nice people, but that’s not the point.

Naturally, it depends on the audience—ten-year olds like Sheldon up there have a low boredom threshold, while professors of 19th Century Delphinapterus literature seem to have quite a high tolerance—as well as the needs of the story.   And I’m not discounting talent and skill; some authors seem to effortlessly balance any amount of backstory—or none at all.

J.K. Rowling works a couple of tons of personal backstory into Harry Potter, especially the last volume, but it doesn’t slow anything down at all—she  keeps up the pace because the details are relevant and immediately useful  to the plot.

In The Key, Averil Dean weaves the relationship between Elizabeth and her late father into the first several chapters, but these memories and details aren’t infodumpy or extraneous—they establish the character’s loneliness and explains how and why Elizabeth views the world the way she does, which also influences her actions when strange things start happening.  The details are relevant.

Nero Wolfe, Rex Stout’s premiere detective, raises orchids.  It’s one of  his signature character traits—his entire schedule revolves around his greenhouse.  I’ve read all of his adventures, but I don’t believe there’s any mention of why he loves these flowers so. Stout supplies a lot of Wolfe’s backstory,  but I’ve yet to find an outright explanation for this.^  Yet the orchids aren’t just a surface gimmick:  orchids are as fussy, particular, and agoraphobic as Wolfe himself, and serve as a reflection of himself, even to his preference for bright yellow.  Wolfe without his orchids would be Wolfe lessened.

BUT . . .

While I may find it fascinating that my MC likes flavored coffees because her first sensei used to brew hazelnut-mocha coffee  in the back of the dojo and the scent has become a sign of safety and comfort,***  interrupting the story to mention this isn’t going to help things along.

Her coffee preference is a good personal detail (at least in my opinion), but while  the reason might matter to the character—if she would even remember it it doesn’t matter to the story, and wedging it in there wouldn’t work.  She’s not the kind of person to share this kind of personal information, or naturally ponder it so the readers will catch on.  In the end, the why doesn’t matter.

It’s enough that after tough days, she always makes a pot of hazelnut-mocha,  and breathes in the steam before relaxing.  And doesn’t give a damn if her co-workers wrinkle their noses.

___

*Or  my “four-paneled” soap operas, as I call ‘em.

**But not, to my relief, sparkly vampires.   Bless you, Dave Kellett!

***I just made that up, but why not?

^If there is one, please let me know—and cite the story, please!