How much backstory?

Here’s a post from Pub Rants: The Making of Meaningful Backstory (Part I)

Backstory is one of the crucial elements of the craft of fiction, so it definitely deserves our attention. But should backstory be a workhorse that earns its place within your manuscript’s structure by serving more than one weight-bearing function? Or should backstory be part of the wallpaper, passively decorative and meant to be glimpsed only now and then in the background? Is there a point at which too little backstory makes a novel feel flat? Or a point at which a big backstory is too big?

Oh, these are all good questions!

I think this sort of thing is best examined by looking at specific novels. So let me see …

Backstory in The Hands of the Emperor:

This is such an interesting book! There is a TON of important backstory. Some is delivered practically up front: The empire came crashing down some time ago (an event ambiguously distant in time). That’s an important worldbuilding detail.

But the important backstory, the protagonist’s backstory, isn’t like that at all. The reader learns only very gradually about Cliopher’s own life during and shortly after the fall of the empire. This backstory is crucial for understanding many things about Cliopher — how he developed certain Islander skills, why he knows the full versions of the songs and the fire dance, how he came to learn how to make a boat with his own hands. Why he feels so disconnected from his family — his return home after the fall was so weird, and then when he arrived, the experience was very alienating. I think Goddard handled the backstory here very well.

Backstory in … The Death of The Necromancer:

This is another story with a big, important backstory. Everything about Nicholas Valiarde’s past is absolutely crucial — his parentage, his early upbringing (such as it was), his adoptive father and what happened to him — and we just hear about all that in glimpses, even though that backstory is driving a big element of the plot. Or, you could say, that element of the plot is the frame story that is wrapped around the necromancer story.

Backstory in … The Deed of Paksennarion

In contrast, in a story like The Deed of Paksennarion, the backstory is fundamentally very simple; so simple it’s practically nonexistent. Paks is a sheepfarmer’s daughter, she doesn’t want to get married, she runs away and joins a military company, and that’s it. Much later we learn about some of the bigger things that were going on that drive the larger plot, but that stuff really does act nearly as wallpaper, passively decorative. Fundamentally, this is a story that doesn’t have, or need, any backstory to speak of. The protagonist starts off very simple and familiar; and the world is also very familiar; that’s another reason Elizabeth Moon could get away with so little backstory. None of that is a criticism. It’s just that this sort of story makes such a great contrast with the above examples.

Oh, here’s one —

Backstory in The Martian:

This is SF rather than fantasy, but it’s a great example of a story that just doesn’t have any backstory to mention — not even as passive decoration — it’s just not there. The world is too close to contemporary to need any kind of description; the visit to Mars is so in-line with ordinary near-future life that it doesn’t need description or justification, and the protagonist might as well have no past life at all. That’s really interesting! I never thought about that before. This is such a fantastic example of a novel with (a) no past; and (b) no character development, that nevertheless (c) works beautifully. I should re-read it.

Let me see. All right:

Backstory in House of Shadows:

This one lacks backstory almost as completely as the Paksennarion trilogy, though not as much as The Martian. The father’s died, the sisters are in a fix, boom, moving forward. Everything that happens has to do with their present, not with their past. Taudde has a lot more of a backstory, of course. And the broader worldbuilding backstory is important. I mean, there is the dragon, among other things.

Backstory in Black Dog:

Of course the worldbuilding backstory is especially important in a lot of Paranormals and Urban Fantasy. That’s because a lot of the time, the world looks JUST LIKE OURS, except then (a) something dramatic happened, as in Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series, in which powerful magic suddenly returned to the world; or (b) there’s a lot of magical stuff going on behind the scenes. Personal backstory is generally important as well.

In Black Dog, all that vampire-black dog war stuff is worldbuilding background. But the personal backstory about what happened to their family right before Natividad and Alejandro and Miguel fled for Dimilioc is never described in any detail. It had a big emotional impact on those three characters, but we still never look back at it very closely. We actually don’t get a lot about the personal backstories of any characters in the novels, as far as I can remember right now. Lots more of that is in the stories, though.

Backstory in The Death’s Lady trilogy:

Now here’s the one where personal backstory is most important. Not only Tenai’s huge, sweeping, epic backstory — although that’s very important — but Daniel’s small-scale personal backstory is important as well. Not quite as important as Nicholas Valiarde’s personal backstory … or maybe it would be more accurate to say, just as important, but not as dramatic.

Anyway, in this trilogy, wow, backstory is absolutely not part of the wallpaper, passively decorative and meant to be glimpsed only now and then in the background. Not at all. The backstory drives the whole current plot. The reader even gets glimpses of the backstory, as Tenai tells little vignettes of her past life to Daniel.

I think that’s one more way in which this trilogy is different from other things I’ve written.

I’ll just add a reminder that the Death’s Lady trilogy is available for preorder.

I’ll also add that so far — I’m halfway through — I have a penciled notation (or two or three) on nearly every page of the third book. ARRGH. I’m enjoying reading it, but dismayed at how enormously annoying it’s going to be to go make all those tiny little changes.

I should be finished with that by the end of this weekend, counting time off to read Fugitive Telemetry and plant the zillion or so little plants I bought yesterday. Hopefully it won’t snow again. I hear we’re supposed to get up to four inches of rain plus hail tomorrow, so ouch, but I will probably put most of the babies out this afternoon and cross my fingers.

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3 thoughts on “How much backstory?”

  1. So the answer is that old standby: “It depends”? I went and looked at the OP and find these examples more useful of how and what kind than the more generic advice there. Although it is correct that the world and characters are what they are due to the past, it isn’t necessary – given the above examples – to pour it all on the page.

    Got to say I flinched at the ‘wound event’ terminology. Where did that come from?

  2. Elaine, “wound event” sounds to me like something that might have come out of Romance. In Romance, the protagonist is expected to have an internal flaw or misconception about love which is also sometimes called a wound or internal wound. So … maybe that’s not where the term came from, but it’s definitely what I thought of.

  3. Hmm — my novels have a fair amount of backstory, but even short stories can have it — as needed.

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