Ah, backstory. A vital part of any character design (and rarely as necessary to the story being told as we all thought it was in the first draft.)
I remember I once wrote a draft of a now-abandoned novel, and the friend I asked to read it found so much more backstory than was required she just highlighted all instances of backstory and then handed the printout back to me wordlessly. It was a bit humiliating. In some places I was telling more backstory than actual story.
I suspect that this experience was what caused me to really examine how different writers approach this device, in all stories I now encounter. It’s basically a whole separate hobby by this point. And it’s really fascinating to me: all the different effects and uses writers can find for the simple act of telling me what’s happened before the story I am encountering even gets started.
Backstory is a narrative device with many, many uses, and one backstory can serve a whole slew of different aims. Some of the most common examples might be giving a sense of history to a fictional world, a sense of age to characters (if they were having adventures seventy years ago, their experience counts for a lot), and is a good way of feeding readers lies or half-truths in the form of legends passed down for generations. We don’t have time to talk about all of them, right now. But this is the redemption arc series, so that’s what we’re going to focus on, OK?
There are, I think, two main categories of backstory in a redemption arc: Contextual Backstory and Constructive Backstory. They are completely different in style, form and narrative purpose, and we’re going to check them out and see some really good examples of each. Then we’re going to look at the problems that can occur when writers get confused. (It happens to the best of us).
Let’s take a look…
Contextual Backstory tends to be very short, and simply gives a hint of how a character has reached the point in their life where they are ready for a redemption arc. It’s short and simple; there’s not too much nuance presented. There doesn’t need to be – all the character development for the arc will take place in the main story and the Contextual Backstory is simple set-up.
This can be as simple as a character answering the question “Why are you helping me?” with one sentence: “I lost my wife years ago because I was foolish, and I’m not going to repeat my mistakes.” Because really, that sentence probably tells us everything we need to know – there was an event in your past that you feel the need to atone for and now the plot is going to follow you doing just that. Fine.
I worry that some writers, especially newer ones, get the impression that length equals quality, or is in some way necessary. (Like I did with that now abandoned novel.) Absolutely everything I’ve learned from editing could be summed up as: ‘You need to tell people way less than you think.’
Yes, you could expand on this traumatic past event, but do you actually need to? Are you sure?
A really good example of Contextual Backstory in action can be found in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, in which Mr Darcy’s backstory is genuinely given right at the end of the book! That’s how much you needed it for his character arc!
“I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Unfortunately an only son (for many years an only child), I was spoilt by my parents, who, though good themselves (my father, particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable), allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing; to care for none beyond my own family circle; to think meanly of all the rest of the world; to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own. Such I was, from eight to eight and twenty; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.”
The way Austen structures Pride and Prejudice fascinates me. I can’t think of many stories where a character’s backstory is given after they learn the lesson of their arc, thus allowing the reader to finally appreciate the magnitude of the lesson they learned, but I’d like to see more of it.
Mr Darcy’s speech is a perfect example of Contextual Backstory in action, because while it’s interesting for the reader to learn how Darcy managed to become the proud and disagreeable man that he is throughout much of the book until forced to learn better, it does not matter why he’s like this. Story-wise and audience-wise, it absolutely does not matter.
Mr Darcy is utterly unpleasant to everyone who shows him kindness and welcome for the whole first half of the book, and the fact that he was spoiled by his parents does not excuse this at all. It doesn’t exempt him whatsoever from learning how to behave decently to other people, and he knows this.
Structurally, we are shown the effects of Darcy’s mistakes long before we learn the context; Mrs Bennet, despite having five unmarried daughters and despite Darcy’s large fortune never once tries to encourage her girls to secure a match:
“But I can assure you,” [Mrs Bennet] added, “that Lizzy does not lose much by not suiting his fancy; for he is a most disagreeable, horrid man, not at all worth pleasing. So high and so conceited that there was no enduring him! He walked here, and he walked there, fancying himself so very great! Not handsome enough to dance with! I wish you had been there, my dear, to have given him one of your set-downs. I quite detest the man.”
When Wickham tells lies about Darcy in Meryton, we are shown how everyone is completely willing to believe them because of the poor impression Darcy has made on everyone:
The whole of … his claims on Mr. Darcy, and all that he had suffered from him, was now openly acknowledged and publicly canvassed; and everybody was pleased to know how much they had always disliked Mr. Darcy before they had known anything of the matter.
Miss Bennet was the only creature who could suppose there might be any extenuating circumstances in the case, unknown to the society of Hertfordshire; her mild and steady candour always pleaded for allowances, and urged the possibility of mistakes—but by everybody else Mr. Darcy was condemned as the worst of men.
And of course there’s the fateful moment when Darcy is shown how and why he must change if he is to have a chance at the life he wants:
“From the very beginning— from the first moment, I may almost say— of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form the groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”
In short, so many of Darcy’s problems in life (and love!) stem from the impression he makes on people, and the reason why he makes this impression is not relevant; he needs to change regardless. That’s his half of the story that we all know and love, and the lesson is impactful because we get to watch it happen.
We know that it might not be easy, nor should it be or there’d be no plot. Austen even sets up Darcy’s struggle ahead of time so we, the readers, can enjoy watching it pay-off:
“I certainly have not the talent which some people possess,” said Darcy, “of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.”
“My fingers,” said Elizabeth, “do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women’s do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I will not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman’s of superior execution.”
Contextual Backstory is best used either for set-up or pay-off. In Pride and Prejudice Austen uses it as a pay-off for all the lessons Darcy has learned over the course of the story. It feels cathartic to watch a character tell us how much he needed the lesson, and why he’d got himself into that mess, now that it’s all over.
When used at the beginning of a story, as a set-up, it essentially boils down to something like this: “Once upon a time there was a spoiled prince, and he was cruel to all those around him until an enchantress cursed him” (We’ll look at that in Part 2, don’t worry). It just explains how we got into the position where the story starts, and then we all get on with the fun of the story itself.
Constructive Backstory will always be much longer and plays a larger role in the main narrative. A character needs to actively deal with their past, going over past circumstances and actions and dealing with the repercussions that came from them.
The best place to use this type of backstory is in any story where the lesson being learned by the character is the primary plot (rather than a sub-plot in the case of Mr Darcy – it facilitates the primary plot of Darcy and Elizabeth’s love story, but it isn’t the primary focus of the book). That means that your readers need all the available information possible, as such stories work best when written from the perspective of the character learning the lesson.
In this field, we really can’t look at any better example than Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Look at how much space Christmas Past takes up, nearly a third of the story! And in doing so it covers all the main themes the story encompasses: that money cannot buy happiness, that happiness is worth more than money, that having friends may be harder than keeping entirely to oneself but that doesn’t make it a bad idea.
Looking at the story from a structural approach, there’s plenty of good build up before we dive into spectral shenanigans. We get a good look at what Ebenezer Scrooge is like, we see the people in his life – his nephew and his clerk principally – and we hear his views on poverty, wealth and the role society has to play in both. Not to mention the famous speech on why he wishes people would just stop with the Christmas thing!
But when we take a look at his past life, we see where he’s acquired his attitudes and he sees, from an equally removed position what this has cost him, and the lessons he has forgotten.
We get a certain amount of Contextual Backstory in the way Scrooge’s need to be wealthy was developed and why he clings to it:
`What Idol has displaced you.’ [Scrooge] rejoined.
`A golden one.’
`This is the even-handed dealing of the world.’ he said. `There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth.’
`You fear the world too much,’ she answered, gently. `All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you. Have I not.’
But this isn’t what makes up the majority of Christmas Past, and tellingly it isn’t the thing that people remember and take away from the story at all. What people remember is Dickens’s use of Constructive Backstory. What makes the difference, is the way that Dickens always makes sure to tie the backstory into the story of Scrooge’s present. Take this moment when the value of happiness and money is compared:
`A small matter,’ said the Ghost, `to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.’
`Small.’ echoed Scrooge.
The Spirit signed to him to listen to the two apprentices, who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig: and when he had done so, said,
`Why. Is it not. He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise.’
`It isn’t that,’ said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. `It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then. The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.’
He felt the Spirit’s glance, and stopped.
`What is the matter.’ asked the Ghost.
`Nothing in particular,’ said Scrooge.
`Something, I think.’ the Ghost insisted.
`No,’ said Scrooge,’ No. I should like to be able to say a word or two to my clerk just now. That’s all.’
As a reader, we can visibly track Scrooge’s progress towards learning to be a better person through examining his past. This isn’t information which enhances the story, this is information without which you couldn’t have a story.
Mutton Dressed As Lamb… The Backstory Version
Let’s be honest, there’s only so many stories out there. It feels like we’re still right in the middle of a movement to retell old stories in new ways, either with fairy tales, or indeed nostalgic reboots.
And that’s absolutely great! Telling old stories in new ways is the best way to keep stories relevant and therefore keep having a reason to tell those stories again and again. I will never understand people who get all uptight about only looking at ‘the original version’ of fairy and folk tales – like such a thing exists since those stories existed for centuries before they were ever written down! Stories are made to change with every retelling. That’s genuinely what they are for!
Having said that…
One of the benefits as a writer of looking through lots of different versions of the same story is that it allows you to gain a better understanding of narrative devices as being distinct from the story itself. The story is the same between different versions, but the changes in where focus is placed, or what is expanded or cut out, or how various actions being given to different characters affects the story as a whole is very helpful, as you are effectively forced to see the story as both a whole and the sum of its parts.
Case in point: Backstory.
I have for the past few years used the utterly professional and academic term ‘Mutton/Lamb Backstory’ It’s not elegant I know, but it’s the best way I can find to summarise the feeling I get when one type of backstory is used the wrong way. The end result is something that feels unconvincing and dissatisfactory for me, like I’m being sold a lie, but I think it’s more likely to be the product of using a perfectly good narrative device in the wrong place.
In original works, I find this mostly manifests as Constructive Backstory being mistaken for Contextual, by which I mean there are signs of a rich and complex backstory that reflects or ties into the events of the main story but hasn’t been sufficiently explored to feel satisfactory.
I confess that most of the time I find this in either amateur fiction online or in the drafts of works I’m beta-reading, so I can’t easily give an example without betraying confidences. However, if you are yourself getting feedback on your work that includes a lot of ‘this could be expanded upon’, then maybe consider if this is your problem? Have a look at tying your backstory in a bit more, and have your characters explore the repercussions of their actions and experiences. Let the lessons learned from this inform how they act for the rest of your story.
In bigger-budget retellings of familiar stories, however, is the more (for me, at least) objectionable mistake. When Contextual Backstory is used as if it is Constructive. I cannot express how disappointed I become when I have to experience this.
Essentially, this will manifest itself as a relatively simple backstory which doesn’t affect the actual plot of the main story at all, but which is given far too much time and focus. It keeps cropping up, under the guise of ‘being revealed in stages’, when it often could be easily summarised and have the same effect. It may even be hinted at several times – as if building up to its reveal is necessary for it to be interesting.
Doing this with your Contextual Backstory tends to sap the time given to real character development we all tuned in for, and in terms of narrative structure it does wonders to kill any joy in that story for the audience, because all the interesting stuff has clearly happened before this story.
As a reader, I’m sorry, but I don’t care that your characters used to be interesting if they aren’t interesting now. Are the adventures they used to have overshadowing the one I’m supposed to be reading?
If so, why don’t you just tell me that story then, if this one isn’t good enough?
There’s also a bad tendency, especially in the context of redemption arcs, for this misused backstory to appear to be excusing a character for their awful actions within the main story. Having a miserable past does not entitle you to make others miserable now. Why would you write that?
In 2015 Disney published A Frozen Heart, written by Elizabeth Rudrick, based off the hit movie Frozen. As is common with Disney’s expansions on its own stories, it includes a lot of backstory for the film in an effort to put the story’s villain, Hans, in a favourable and sympathetic light. It builds heavily off the line from Hans to Anna that his twelve older brothers were mean to him, including two of them pretending that he didn’t exist for years. We get to read this pretty harrowing tale of Hans’s upbringing and the emotional abuse he suffers from his father, who seems to have really subscribed to the ideas of Social Darwinism, and his brothers and…
And no, I’m sorry. I just… I can’t. Backstories can explain behaviours; they can’t justify them.
As we established in the previous post, your characters need to earn their redemption through their actions and the lessons they learn. You can’t have them build up a strange credit-system wherein if they suffer in their backstory they can get away with murder in the main story.
Hans in the Frozen movie genuinely tries his level best to murder the crowned queen of a foreign nation, having left the heir to the throne to die, and falsifying a claim for himself, effectively taking the crown by force.
Two women nearly died, and while it’s not all on his shoulders, Hans still does his level best to steal himself a kingdom at their expense. I know he wanted to escape his family, but seriously? We’re just going to hand-wave an attempted coup by a foreign power away like that? I suppose we’ve learned where Hans got his ruthlessness from, but I think that could have been summarised in a paragraph at the start. The only other thing we get out of it is the impression that we shouldn’t hold Hans responsible for his actions in the story we’ve already been told in the film and I find that a questionable approach to take in both fiction and real life.
What I’m saying here, structurally speaking, you can’t redeem your character through their backstory. It doesn’t work!
A common defence of poorly used backstory is that is seeks to ‘humanise’ a character, to which I always reply that if a writer cannot make a character ‘human’ simply by writing them well, then backstory will not fix the issue. I can think of nothing so ‘human’ as to seek power at the expense of others, but I don’t see how a rotten childhood contributes to that ‘human’ redemption here.
When writing any story of any kind, the number one thing writers must ask themselves will always be this: Why am I telling people this? Do they need to know?
Backstory is really easy to over-use or mis-use, and I’m speaking as a writer who learned this the hard way! In Part 2, we’re going to have ourselves an experiment! We’ll be looking at a recent Disney film and see what can be done with the backstory. See you next time!