Friday, 16 October 2009

The importance of backstory

The second lot of feedback on Replacing Angel (my English novel in progress) has arrived from my editor. (She's sending it in three parts.) There are still a few questions to be answered. One scene I'm working on is the birthday of my main character Natalie. She's having a drink in a pub with her flat mates and Deanna (a friend of her best friend Angel who used to live in the flat before Natalie did). At the birthday drink it's the first time Deanna meets one of the flat mates and now the question is: if she was such a good friend - how come she's met one of the flat mates and not the other?

I have no answer. Yet. That's what I have to work out and that's where backstory comes in ... It's not like I have to write a whole chapter about how Deanna met one of the flat mates and not the other, but I still have to know to give a satisfactory explanation to the reader. So I've just dedicated an hour of "stream of consciousness"- writing to find out. (I don't like setting my alarm - so I used Nick Cave's album "Tender Pray" as a timer even if it's "only" 54 minutes.)

It turns out one of the flat mates is very controlling and doesn't like visitors. But the reason he's met this Deanna is that they use the same drug dealer. I hope this will work! I'll do some more free writing and see what I come up with. In the first writing workshop I ever went to (I was 16) I learnt that you have to know EVERYTHING about your characters, even how much change they've got in their pocket - it doesn't matter if it never gets mentioned. You still have to know - otherwise there will be gaps in the story.

p.s. the picture is supposed to represent a stream of consciousness. but in reality it's a sea of consciousness ... that's how I think of the English channel anyway!


  1. There are some writers who don't know everything about their characters. What about Harold Pinter: 'I can sum up none of my plays. I can describe none of them, except to say: That is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.' (1970). In his Nobel Prize speech, he says that he always starts plays by calling his characters A, B and C, and also that he never has any back-story before writing. It's a different approach, but believe me, it can reap dividends too.

  2. I have to say it's the same for me - sometimes I hardly know anything about characters; I watch what they do and listen to what they plots are paper-thin but so far no one's ever complained about my characters not seeming real. Maybe there are several utterly different kinds of writers, even just within the field of fiction...