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Backstory: The Untold Story

One of my favorite things about being a writing coach is that I get to come up with my own terminology, and I can make it as serious or as frivolous as I like.

My unofficial list of rules of writing, which I’ll have to make official one of these days, is called “Thomas’s Rules of Writing.” I could just as easily call it “The Chicken List.” And, if it’s a quality list, generations from now someone could quote Chicken #5 in an English class and get extra credit for it.

All that is to say that, as we discuss character backstory today, I’ve come up with a handy guide for classifying various bits of character information. As much as I want to call it “The Deathray Plan,” or maybe something subtle like “Policy 13,” I’m going with “The Biological Priority Index.”

Simple. Straightforward. Effective.

Having constructed our characters through our prewriting packets and our improv exercises, we are left with a ton of information about our characters. How do we sort through it? More importantly, how do we decide what information is vital enough to include and what’s banal enough to excise?

If only there were some index by which we could measure the priority of biographical information.

Because, believe me, not all backstory is created equal. If I’m reading a book about a terrorist, I don’t want to know about his childhood bedwetting problem unless those wet sheets really mean something to the story. If not, leave it out. Fiction should be lean. Bloating is never pretty.

And even if information is important, there’s still the question of when to reveal it. In The Sixth Sense, we need to know right away that Bruce Willis is a child psychologist. But if we know from the beginning that he’s dead, the movie’s ruined. (That’s all a plot twist is, after all. It’s just appropriately timed backstory.)

So once you have your character’s backstory, you need to prioritize it. The BPI is a handy rubric for doing just that.

Priority 1 information is crucial to the story and should be revealed as soon as is practical.

Priority information is crucial but should be withheld for dramatic effect.

Priority 3 information is nonessential but may provide color and insight into a character, milieu, or situation.

Priority 4 information is nonessential and should not be included.

How your backstory details are classified depends on the themes of your story. If you have two possible plotlines for the same character, one might emphasize his bedwetting history while the other emphasizes his relationship with the deceased. It all depends on where you want to go with your characters.

In our story about our terrorist – call him Carl – let’s say our theme is the moral consistency of people from different cultures. Carl therefore functions as an antihero who does some bad things for some good reasons. By the end of the story, we want him to do some good things for some good reasons.

Let’s build a rudimentary plot arc. The story begins when Carl assassinates a member of parliament. His immediate goal is to escape to safety. He accomplishes this but, at Plot Point 1, discovers that his brother has been arrested for the crime.

Carl’s new goal is to free his brother while remaining free himself. His efforts take us to Plot Point 2, where he sees how his actions have hurt the victim’s brother. Now racked with remorse, Carl struggles with himself until the climax, where he turns himself in and makes restitution for his crimes. Justice, and the plot, are satisfied.

This arc and our theme determine what backstory we will provide for Carl. The fact that he has a brother is definitely Priority 1, since it’s a major plot point later on. His reasons for the assassination are also Priority 1 because of the theme; if this were just a simple action story with no moral quandary, his motives would be Priority 3 or even 4.

What about Priority 2? That the victim has a brother is a good example of something that should take the reader by surprise. After all, this is from Carl’s point of view, and Carl may not know or care until he connects that fact with his own situation. Likewise for any information clarifying Carl’s moral development, since that’s the theme. The existence of Carl’s brother may be Priority 1, but the fact that Carl is the real father of his brother’s children and still feels guilt for that betrayal is information that can be held until later. The delayed revelation gives the reader new insight into why Carl tries so hard to redeem his brother.

Is there room for the bedwetting? Maybe. If it’s associated with, oh, his memories of his abusive father, it could be Priority 3 info and find a place in the plot; it will never be Priority 2 or 1.

Carl’s high school girlfriends are Priority 4. Whether he has a Traditional or Roth IRA is Priority 4. His favorite movie, what he dreamed last week, even the color of his eyes: all are Priority 4. Sure, you can make a case for them to be Priority 3 and include them, but at some point it’s just too much. You have to draw the line somewhere. You have to cut backstory in service to the plot, even if those individual elements are interesting in themselves.

What I want you to avoid is information overload. I’ve edited books where there was so much backstory, especially in the first chapter, that it stalled the plot. What happened before is incidental ; it’s what’s happening now that matters. If you find that your backstory is more interesting than your plot, consider setting your story in the past. There’s no shame in that. I’ve done it.

I’ll finish by being frank. As a reader, I don’t want to know your protagonist’s whole backstory. You may be proud of it. I’m happy for you. But if Jeannie is a jogging instructor, she needs to jog at some point in your story. If she never wears deodorant, make her pay for it. If she loves meatloaf, poison it or lose it.

Story over all.

This article took five readthroughs.

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