By Bill Adams
I have been struggling with the idea of backstory in my latest novel. Backstory literally brings the forward momentum of a story to a dead stop. For this reason, backstory is to be avoided.
All the same, backstory seems to be built into every good character arc. The main character has a goal (what Aristotle called the hamartia), but is hampered from completing it by a psychic wound or other vulnerability.
(In Bad Day at Black Rock, Spencer Tracy has an all time great back story)
The main character is typically not aware of his vulnerability (think Oedipus and his hubris). That conflict between the conscious and the subconscious animates a good character. In the Aristotlean method, the story turns when the main character overcomes their vulnerability and achieves their goal.
The problem arises when writers feel the need to explain why their characters are the way they are. It’s usually a bad childhood or a war injury, disgrace, shame, etc. Soon, writers are traipsing down the garden path of backstory.
(Dressing impeccably, but tormented internally: Gregory Peck in The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit)
I don’t think it has to, however. You can show the character’s flawed personality throughout the story by having him or her do things that are seemingly out of character and at those moments, allude to the past. This avoids the info-dump and doesn’t stop the story dead.
For example, Mrs. Dalloway reminisces a lot, as Woolf characters are wont to do and one day when talking to a male friend, she inexplicably bursts into tears. The narrator puts us in her head and we learn that she married for economic security instead of for love, and now, facing her woulda-been lover, realizes the magnitude of her mistake. It’s not a big info-dump, just a few sentences. The weight of the scene is carried in the present-tense tear burst, not by the backstory.
A full-fledged backstory with a flashback generally doesn’t work. It worked in The Godfather II because that story was a picaresque – highly episodic, with no strong story throughline. It was really just “one damn thing after another.” In that structure, a flashback is a good as any other episode.
(I know it was you Fredo…because of your picaresque backstory! Al Pacino gives John Cazale some shocking news in The Godfather II)
That’s how you get away with it also in “superhero” adventures – the story of how Batman got his ears or The Lone Ranger got his mask. You can do a full backstory, because the main story is little more than a set of episodes.
But if you have a well-defined plot, then either you have to start at the beginning (as Sophocles does with Oedipus Rex, or as Dickens does with Great Expectations), and show the original trauma/loss then move forward in time, or else you have to weave the backstory in through little comments and notes throughout as Virginia Woolf did.
Since I’ve got a strong plot, I’m going to try that latter strategy. And I’m thinking, I don’t really have to explain the early causal event. All I have to show is the personality conflict. Where it came from is not all that important. Let it remain mysterious. That’s going to be my strategy.
(For more on backstory: http://www.aliciarasley.com/prob1.htm)