In this recent month’s issue of Poets & Writers, author Eleanor Henderson writes about the use of backstory in her article entitled ‘I Wasn’t Born Yesterday’. Summarily, she argues that while “Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’ Connor, and JD Salinger all wrote deeply involving stories without backstage access to their characters’ histories,” well-written backstory is quite essential to the writer’s craft.
Like Ms Henderson, I share her “frustration with poorly dispatched backstory.” However, I have always been a fan of letting the reader come to form conclusions about the character’s past on their own. I don’t enjoy reading a character’s backstory very much, regardless of how it is told. I much prefer to see their past bubble up into the present by way of clever devices. For example, the slip of tongue or the weight of a haunted childhood. It is far more rewarding for the reader to piece things together, I feel. When a reader questions the behavior of a character, they should be able to look to earlier parts of the novel and come to understand the behavior. If John Smith breaks down in tears in the middle of the park near an oak tree, I feel that a good writer would’ve given the reader enough hints throughout the whole novel up until that point. Perhaps the writer had shown John Smith recounting to a friend a memory of carving his initials into an oak tree with his boyhood sweetheart. Or maybe John Smith had a bum knee from falling out of an oak tree as a kid, an injury that disqualified him from becoming the star athlete he’d dreamt of doing as a boy.
This is different from the compromise that Ms Henderson attributes to Benjamin Percy, describing it as “a restrained, summarized slice of history.” I am rather wary of the use of summary to describe history due to the lack of immediacy. As a reader, I find it a bit jarring to suddenly see in a sentence, “One Friday night in August of 1991…” For me, such a phrase breaks the Gardnerian “vivid and continuous dream.”
To be clear, I believe that backstory is absolutely necessary for writers. An entire fictive world must be generated in the writer’s mind. However, it is not necessary to burden the reader with it. Readers should be able to sense a character’s backstory through a number of expositional devices: by the way others react to him, by the way he reacts to certain situations, and so forth. The following is my attempt at revealing a character’s backstory through present action.
Under the weary eye of the bartender, John downed another heavy mug full of beer at the bar when a few young Asian-American men screamed loudly over a game of pool. His right ear perked up as he gritted his teeth. A few minutes later, they yelled again. John tightened his grip on the handle of his beer mug. He waited until the young men made another ruckus. Then, without turning around, he slammed his mug down onto the bar and screamed, “Shut the fuck up!”
The young men paused. They looked at John and then frowned at each other.
John felt eyeballs on him. “That’s right, I’m talking to you,” he growled. “Shut the fuck up.”
The four of them sauntered over to John, pool sticks stretched across their backs. The one dressed in a bright blue Hawaiian shirt stood directly behind John. “Yo old man, fuck is your problem?”
John rubbed his hand over the underside of his coarse stubbly chin. “You wanna make a scene, fuck off and do it somewhere else.”
The blue-shirted kid leaned his face into John’s. “Make me, old man.”
One of his friends slapped a large heavy hand onto John’s shoulder, big enough to cover the tattered epaulet on his drab olive jacket. It was all the excuse that John needed.
In one smooth motion, John slipped his shoulder under the big man’s hand and wrapped his arm around the back of his head before slamming it into the bar. In the second motion, he elbowed the kid in the blue shirt in the face. Another crony swung his pool stick at John from behind, but John’s instincts made him to shift his torso to the left before turning around to disable his enemy with a fast kick to the knee. The final assailant attempted a wild looping series of punches, and John dodged a few of them before redirecting one fist into a lock, whereupon he efficiently snapped the man’s wrist.
John had engaged his enemies and prevailed over them within twenty seconds, and all without moving three feet from where he was sitting. He spat at the kid in the blue shirt. “Goddamned gooks…fucking forty years, and I’m still fighting them.”
If I wrote the scene well enough (I only wrote it in ten minutes), you should be able to tell some key things about John. He’s clearly trained in hand-to-hand combat, and highly skilled. He is certainly not afraid of altercation (or even seems to be actively seeking one), and he knows how to handle himself. From the epaulet on his jacket, we know that he’s likely from the military. And in the final line, we can infer that he is almost certainly a veteran of either the Vietnam or Korean War. In this particular instance, we learn about John’s backstory through his actions in the present. I didn’t have to reveal that backstory by directly stating anything at all, and I (hopefully) entertained the reader while I was doing it. I did not have to use a “summarized slice of history.” While a slice of history might save space, it takes the reader out of the present and out of the fictive dream. Ms Henderson cites a seven-page scene in Telegraph Avenue as a “luxurious” way to delight the reader with a vivid description of a car and a gun. Not having read the book, I can’t say whether I agree with her. But on principle, I do not appreciate the use of the phrase, “On a Saturday night in August 1973,” as a way to flash back to a character’s past.
In my own novel, Mark has a strong pre-occupation with the past. Memories from long ago still weigh on his mind, and I do delve into a few select memories of his. However, I smoothly introduce the memory into the writing. I draw the reader into Mark’s mind (or, at least I attempt to) throughout the entirety of the novel; when I show the memory to the reader, it is because Mark is remembering it himself. In this way, the fictive dream is not being broken because I have entrained the reader to follow Mark’s mind—when he remembers the memory, the reader is ‘remembering’ it too, albeit for the first time.
On the whole, I try my very best to introduce backstory whenever the present happenings present a chance for it to show itself. I strongly believe that by restricting the revelation of backstory to things that happen in the present, it forces the writer to create a character who can create a very strong impression. Showing entire memories that become stories about someone’s past is, to me, a cheap shortcut that gives the writer a pass on developing more interesting scenes and situations that force someone to reveal the impact of their past. Yes, it has its place, depending on the story. I just think there are many more better ways to satiate the reader’s “craving for backstory [and] the weight of history,” as Henderson puts it; in most cases a writer would do best to avoid passages that pore over details of a person’s past. And if one wishes to give the reader access to a character’s past, it should be tightly integrated into the story that is happening in the present. Or, at least, that’s what I prefer for my own fiction both as a reader and a writer.