Creating the Continuous Dream and Backstory
As I have mentioned in other posts, the job of writers is to create what John Gardner called the continuous dream—that is, a story the reader can immerse herself in and live in the world of your fiction. The more you do this, the more your reader finds the story both credible and compelling. Similarly, you need to avoid breaking the dream—that is, momentarily pulling your reader out of the story to wonder something like would Joe really do that? Or worse, abandoning your piece altogether because it didn’t grab him. To keep the continuous dream going, you want to create characters which are both fully realized (i.e. act like real people) and powerfully transmit your message. One way to support that is to write a backstory.
What is backstory?
Backstory is the writer’s exploration of a character’s motives, history, goals, dreams, nightmares and generally, how the character fits into your fictional world. The character is usually your main protagonist but can be others.
Backstory differs from the story you’re writing in that its intent is to inform you, not the reader. It helps you make decisions about where to take your narrative and so may never appear in the actual story.
In my novel, The Honest One, my main character (David) is a hard-driving, ambitious young man who does whatever it takes to succeed. He steals an idea from a colleague to garner senior management’s attention.
At one point, I wasn’t sure where to go next for David to be a fully realized character. The following is a very abbreviated version of what I wrote as I was working through.
Who is David?
He knows he should not steal but does it anyway.
How interesting. Why?
Because he wants to succeed at any cost.
Why is he so driven?
His father Gord tells the truth all the time and has been sidelined and ostracized at work as a result. David knows that truth doesn’t lead to success.
But this, coupled with the ambition, creates an unsympathetic character. Do I want to make David more sympathetic? But then the whole point of the character is lost. I want the reader to be routing for him while recognizing the deviousness. How do I square this circle?
I think the reader would continue reading if David was a compelling character—that is, you can’t stop reading even though he is somewhat unsavory. How do I do that? Would it be enough to see his inner guilt? Or that he has other positive and sympathetic traits? Or something else. But what?
Would it work to have a personal life which isn’t so driven? Does he compartmentalize work and personal life so he can do things at work he could not justify in his non-work life?
As I said, this is an extremely condensed version of what I wrote. In the full version, I would have come up with some possible solutions to my questions and then written some experimental scenes to see if could achieve the effect I wanted. In any case, I hope the example above illustrates that you can use writing about the character to help you work out where you want to go even if the backstory itself never makes it into the novel.
Next post: how to do a backstory.