Meaningful backstory

Here’s the second part of this post at Pub Rants about backstory. You may remember my first post about their first post:

[S]hould 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?

And then I showed examples of books with and without weight-bearing versus wallpaper backstory.

Now, this post at Pub Rants comes to this conclusion:

  • The more complicated or developed the backstory, the more I expect it to impact the current story.
  • The simpler or less-developed the backstory, the less I expect it to impact the current story.

That seems quite reasonable — it’s like giving minor characters names and descriptions and bios. The more you develop the minor character, the more the reader is going to expect that person to be important in the story.

It’s a fine line, because sometimes it feels awkward and unnatural not to give even a very minor character a name. That character might not get much more than that; it depends.

Backstory’s like that too. You can add tons of little details that add depth to the world — food, architecture, clothing, weather, animals, plants, modes of address and other customs — and all that can still serve as wallpaper. It’s not necessarily complicated or developed, no matter how many details there might be.

Let’s contrast two very different books that nevertheless seem similar with regard to certain aspects of the backstory and worldbuilding:

a) Shadow of the City by R Morgan, and

b) Pyramids of London by Andrea K Höst

In the former, the (wonderful) worldbuilding details are largely wallpaper. We don’t actually know much at all about the history of, say, the Yaa Empire. The backstory that has to do with worldbuilding is (mostly) minimally developed. However, certain murder-mystery-ish details of backstory do impact the plot in a crucial way. The personal backstory of the protagonist is developed in broad strokes.

In contrast, in the latter, the (equally wonderful) worldbuilding details are crucial to the story. I mean, not everything. There are SO MANY amazing details. But a surprising number of those details crucially impact the plot. Then the protagonist’s personal backstory is important on top of that.

These are really two good choices to read to think about world development and what really ornate worldbuilding can do for a story.

Now, the linked post about backstory actually goes much more in depth about a different concept, one that isn’t as familiar a term:

One key reason backstory is so important is that it’s where the wound event lives. (The idea of a wound event has been explored extensively by story experts like Michael Hauge and John Truby, so check them out if you want a deeper dive.) I’ve worked with lots of writers who’ve never heard of a wound event, or who confuse their wound event with their inciting incident, which can wreak havoc on a story’s structure later on. So to clear it up in the most basic terms:

  • The wound event happens before page one and kicks off the internal arc.
  • The inciting incident happens on or after page one and kicks off the external arc.

In other words, the wound event is a single, critical backstory event that weighed your protagonist down with whatever emotional baggage they’re already carrying when they walk onto page one of your novel. It’s this emotional wound they must overcome by the novel’s end as a direct result of the events that make up the novel’s external arc. In other words, the internal and external arcs are intertwined and resolve together.

This is indeed basically the same thing as the “internal flaw” that gets discussed when talking about romance structure. It’s the source of the emotional baggage that the protagonist(s) have to overcome in order to believe that they’re worthy of and capable of love.

Now … when you’re not talking about romance, I’m kinda thinking that a lot of protagonists don’t necessarily need or have any sort of “internal flaw” or “emotional wound” of this sort. This is VERY specific to romance.

I just picked up the Touchstone trilogy in audio form, and thank you whoever recently mentioned that the narrator is great, because I’m looking forward to listening to something with which I’m already familiar. And yes, the first two books were seriously reduced in price because I have the ebooks already — the third was pricier, don’t know why, maybe just because it’s the third. Anyway, picking up audiobooks after you have the ebooks is definitely something to consider.

But I mention this because Cassandra is a great example of a protagonist who doesn’t have an emotional wound in her backstory. Her backstory is, in fact, entirely unimportant. Any reasonably loving family would have done equally well.

I think — I’m sure — that there are many, many stories like that. Anything, in fact, where you realize the protagonist’s personal backstory is not very important. The Paksenarrion series, which I mentioned before in this exact context. Ryo in Tuyo. Any number of young-person-leaves-home stories of that basic type are going to have a protagonist with no wound event of the sort the linked post thinks is so crucial. The protagonist will start the story with only the perfectly ordinary minor bruises that come from life in even the most supportive family.

This emphasis on the wound event — like here, again from the linked post —

A wound event, because it is both structurally significant and thematically meaningful, is the least amount of backstory you should focus your efforts on developing. … my only question is this: Can you identify a solid wound event in what you wrote? A wound event that resulted in the emotional baggage your protagonist will shed or otherwise confront head-on at the end of your story? …

I already mentioned that the wound event sometimes shows up as a prologue. It can also be a flashback. Or it doesn’t have to be a scene at all. It can be something your protagonist discloses in dialogue. Or something you reveal to the reader through your protagonist’s internalizations. How and when you reveal your story’s wound event is up to you. But one piece of advice I love is that the writer should write the wound event—not necessarily to include in the novel, but so that she can stand beside her protagonist as he endures that event. So that she can bear witness to that formative moment, and then later imbue his scenes with the raw emotional residue it left behind.

This sort of thing simultaneously seems like really neat advice and like completely irrelevant advice. I read the paragraphs above and I think, Wow, this is great, very thought-provoking — and I bet you came out of romances, didn’t you? I can hardly imagine any other background for an agent who writes the above advice. (Could be totally wrong, by the way, I know nothing about this person.)

Bottom line: this is a neat way to frame the emotional arc of a protagonist who is carrying the emotional scars of some important, major past trauma. It’s irrelevant to a protagonist who is young at the beginning of the story, not particularly traumatized by life, and whose major character arc involves growing into himself or herself over the course of the story. That means a lot of adventure fantasy and space opera. Also stories like The Martian, where the protagonist has no backstory to speak of even though he’s not a kid. Also a lot of horror and dark fantasy — think of The Twisted Ones by Kingfisher, for example.

If this concept of the emotional wound event is helpful, then it’s helpful and maybe it’d be a fine idea to sort out that part of the backstory as suggested in the linked post. If it’s not, then it’s not, and I wouldn’t suggest trying to force an emotional trauma into your protagonist’s backstory if there’s no benefit to the story from doing so.

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6 thoughts on “Meaningful backstory”

  1. Caszandra is 150,000 words while Stray and Lab Rat are 100,000, thus the price difference for the audiobooks.

    I’m not absolute on Chekhov’s gun (for worldbuilding, character backstory, or objects hanging on the wall) because I like to put in details that simply give a better sense of place. But it’s rare I’ll spend time on anything that doesn’t matter in some way. [Given I’m partially a discovery writer, I often end up making things matter after I’ve put them in.]

    Spending three straight years reading almost nothing but Chinese webnovels is impacting my writing, though. If my books start to be filled with elaborate cooking descriptions, you’ll know what to blame.

    If nothing else, I’m picking up a lot of idioms and common-use terms. The chat during a live broadcast, for instance, is described as ‘the barrage’, and that is just such a perfect term.

  2. Oh, thanks, Andrea, that makes sense! I’m listening to Stray now, and I must say, I look forward to each (brief, rare) moment when Kaoren turns up. I’m so looking forward to the development of that relationships. I’m just at the point where Cass goes (mostly) home for her birthday.

    I, of course, would be all in favor of elaborate cooking descriptions.

    I do the same thing, for details AND people — I introduced a minor unimportant character in the first paragraph of the story I’m writing now and immediately made a firm mental note to do my best to ensure the protagonist encounters that character before the end. It’ll be highly awkward for him, but in a good way.

  3. I’m glad you’re enjoying the audiobooks!
    I just got my dad started on reading the books aloud to my brother. I’m glad I got them in paper as well as ebook and audio, as dad only reads paper books.

    Even when I read romance, I don’t need the character(s) to have a wounding event in their backstory. In fact after several ‘wounded heroes’ I get quite irritated by the idea that a single traumatic event is needed to create a barrier to emotional closeness or love that needs to be overcome.
    People are shaped by the whole of their lives and experiences, and many small things over a long time can together shape a character at least as strongly as a single traumatic event that is not so strongly embedded in the warp and weft of one’s life, I think.

    One emotionally traumatic backstory event scarring someone for years, influencing their character and the shape of their life, is possible but not exactly necessary; but something that impactful will not easily be reversed by one epiphany, nor (generally) simply lose it’s grip on the long-term shaping of one’s life because of the temporary high of falling in love – that will take long-term sustained work. Those tropes tend to make me worry about the future of the relationship, rather than believe in the HEA.

  4. I still loathe the term ‘wound event.’ It sounds aimed for angsting and boring woe is me behavior. People recommend this? I prefer characters who don’t let such things stop them. I guess I’m not the target audience for what that writer (?) was discussing.

    Yes, Hanneke, I’d worry about the long term future, too. Unless the resolution is handled so it’s clear that it’s a partial, and there’s a lot of work to be done and both parties realize that.

  5. I agree with you both. I can see this working better if the so-called wound is pretty minimal rather than deeply traumatic. But then there’s no need to refer to it as a “wound.” It would be some sort of normal insecurity of the type that is absolutely universal.

    I’m thinking now of protagonists like Nevada and Conner in Ilona Andrews’ Wildfire. They’ve got various reasons to hesitate about a relationship, but it’s largely a matter of learning about each other and realizing they’re actually well suited, much less about overcoming a trauma from their past. I think that sort of thing may work much better as a prelude to a long-term relationship.

  6. I am very curious about the Chinese webnovels Andrea has been reading! And about what she is currently writing (I second the vote for more cooking descriptions!)

    Two characters who immediately popped into mind when thinking about wound events and emotional baggage are Miles Vorkosigan and Inda, and they rather negate the advice than support it. Yes, there is perhaps a specific event that they carry with them, but a) it’s not backstory (I guess Miles’ original wound is backstory to his story), and b) they don’t have “baggage” they carry so much as their entire personalities are based around not just this event but the familial/social/interpersonal expectations/dynamics that are the reason the event is so wounding … It’s just way more complicated than giving a character a “wound event”!

    And of course you can have a character flaw without a traumatic event: everyone is flawed! That’s what makes us interesting!

    Much as I love both Miles and Inda, thank you for pointing out that characters can be compelling even if they aren’t tortured by their past!

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