This first time wrote a story, the feedback I received asked what was my character’s motivation. At the time I didn’t understand what they meant and rewrote the whole thing thinking I wasn’t clear as to why my main character went from one scene to the next. But they weren’t commenting on a plotting issue.
Have you ever been haunted by the past? Has it made you do something wild or crazy that makes no sense to an outsider looking in? Someone that knows you and has seen your heart or your past is able to truly understand where you come from and what drives you forward.
I want all readers to be my main character’s oldest and dearest friends. I want them to understand why she stopped the man she really, really likes from kissing her goodnight. Or why an enemy stepped in to the rescue someone he hates.
I’m not a psychologist. I can only use my experiences to figure out why someone else would, or would not act. What stops me flat? Memories of moments that infuriated me, embarrassed me, touched me. Sometimes instinct takes over, the feeling so raw I’m lost in the moment with the consequence’s white light searing into me.
To make my players come alive, to make it clear as to why a character takes action I use backstory. By slipping in a line or two, I can confide a secret, a scar, a confession or deep desire from the past.
I’m careful on the approach and do not include any backstory until after the inciting incident. Then I ask myself how much of a bump in the forward motion the story can endure. History should enhance the reader experience, not bog them down. Think of pacing, and I try to keep the rhythm steady.
Although I know every detail, that doesn’t mean I have to share all of it. In this case think of a fan dancer. Everyone knows the fan dancer is naked, but how much she chooses to show is completely up to her. The audience hopes for more, but she only gives them quick glimpse when it suits her.
Taking it a step further think of the story as the two feather fans, and the glimpses are the backstory. The whole dance may keep the audience attention, but its curiosity keeps them focused on the whole. We all know what’s behind the fans. Backstory, human history and like most us it contains love, heartache, embarrassment, growth, and rage. No long explanation is needed.
And if one is required, or the reader needs more emotion and detail insert a flashback. Make sure you think this through though. If backstory adds a bump to the flow, a flashback stops it dead. Some deciding factors are: does it deepen the reader’s understanding and emotional investment, and can using this device avoid using a prologue? If so, here are some suggestions: never insert one before the inciting incident, frame the flashback or be sure there is a clear beginning and transition back into the original storyline, place it strategically to feed the building tension, and use as few as possible.
Backstory and flashbacks are two vehicles that allow a writer to begin in medias res and still tell a complete story. They can explain the character motivation and give the reader a glimpse as to why one player chooses a red outfit instead of a grey one, a terrier instead of a massif, a hotdog instead of a steak and to run away or stand and fight.
Gathering baggage builds our character.
What kind of baggage is your character dragging around? Why can’t they let go? Are there any hidden issues that belong to you?