We’ve talked some in the past about backstory, but I thought it would be interesting to look at why we choose the backstory we do to create our “front story”—or what the main thrust of the novel is about. A backstory does lots of things for our setting, plot and characters.
Why do we choose the particular backstory we decide to use to create our setting? For me, the backstory must bring the setting to life to show why the characters were so affected by what has happened in their pasts.
A male character, our protagonist, that is “tall, dark, and handsome,” could be one of any type of characters in any time period—until we create his backstory. Of course, the backstory shapes his character in the plot of the book, but the setting is such an integral part of the equation that it would be hard to say what’s more important to your character’s development: where he came from, or where he’s going.
Let me show you what I mean. In my novel, Fire Eyes, the hero, Kaed Turner, has been denied a family by one twist of fate or another since he was a small boy. His parents were killed when he was eight by the Apache, and though he was kept with his sister and brother by first the Apache, then the Choctaw, they were so much younger than he that they quickly forgot what he felt compelled to remember—the deaths of their parents, and their lives before.
He loses his young Choctaw wife and their two children, ironically, to a group of white men who don’t want Indians to settle in the community where he’s built his house.
So, there is no room in his heart to totally embrace the ways of the Indians, but he is being shown physically that he is unwelcome now in the white world. This is further illustrated when Fallon’s band captures him and tries to kill him, but he is saved by the Choctaws. Where does he belong?
Could Fire Eyes have happened the way it did if Kaed’s backstory hadn’t included these incidents? No. The entire feel of the character would have been changed if he had not had these experiences. And to show his growth in the "front story," we have to show what happened to him before. The setting is indispensable in shaping all the other elements of the story, in this case. Kaed has come from rough beginnings due to the things that happened to him that were beyond his control. Now, what kind of man will it make him?
Could these things have happened to him in any other setting? No. When we begin to delve into the history that is pertinent to a particular area and/or time period, there are certain events that have happened that are unique to both time and place. Just as the events of history shape the setting your story takes place in, those same happenings also shape your characters both directly and indirectly.
How much description of the setting do we need in the backstory to set the scene? And how do we deliver it?
In Fire Eyes, we know none of the facts about Kaed’s upbringing at the beginning of the story. In chapter one, when he sees he must give himself up to save the two Choctaw girls, we begin to realize that he knows them, and therefore, has an affiliation with the Choctaws. It isn’t until later, even after the Choctaws rescue him, that it comes out as to why he knows Standing Bear, the chief, and what happened to him as a child. Even later in the story, we learn of the tragedy that happened to his own young family ten years past.
In creating a world we are not familiar with, such as in science fiction or fantasy writing, more of the backstory must be told in the beginning. The stage must be set, and in order to let us know about the world that has been created, more description has to be given toward the front part of the book rather than waiting.
Frank Herbert’s “Dune” series would have made no sense without some description of the world and customs, the people and landscape he created. The same with Tolkien’s world, and even the Harry Potter books, which are a mix of a created world and one we are familiar with.
Letting the setting affect your character is easier than you might think—it’s really inevitable. Even if your novel is set in contemporary times, the city, state or country and even the matter of picking a rural or urban setting will make a huge difference in your characters and your story overall. Was your hero raised on a ranch or was he a city boy? This will definitely determine his reactions the first time his new love interest suggests they go riding next weekend.
How much should your reader know? Not as much as you, the author, does. The art of backstory and description of the setting is in doing it interestingly and seamlessly. Dumping all the information on the reader at once will prove overwhelming.
The saying goes, “The devil is in the details.” Blending your setting, characters, and plot successfully in the backstory of your novel proves the truth of that statement!
In the excerpt below, Kaed talks to Jessica about what happened to his parents and his brother and sister. He is showing us why he feels like he does now, his fears at trying to hold on to family of any kind, after what happened. What we don’t know yet, is the rest of the story about what happened ten years ago, to his wife and children. This is a kind of turning point for Kaed. Will he let events, the setting of his life in the past, shape him? Or will he try again—will he be strong enough to risk everything one more time and shape the setting that is yet to come, the future?
FROM FIRE EYES:
“Family seems to be a hard thing for me to hold on to.” He shifted, and Jessica moved to lay her head on his shoulder. Her long hair trailed across his bare chest, and he felt her breathe slowly, relaxing in his embrace. “I lost my parents when I was eight.”
“It still hurts, doesn’t it?” Jessica laid her hand across his side, tracing his ribs.
He drew a long breath, and spoke quietly. “Yeah. I guess it does.”
“My father was determined to have some bottom land to farm. Never mind that the place he selected was unprotected, away from the rest of the small settlement there in Cale Switch. The land was good, and it was what he wanted. But the Apache saw an easy target. They came in the night and took us. My younger brother, Kevin; my sister, Marissa; and me.”
“They killed your parents?” Her voice was hesitant, and Kaed was silent for a moment before he responded.
“My father tried to stop them. He just couldn’t defend us against so many. They killed him, then my mother, and took their scalps.”
At her sharp intake of breath, Kaed stroked Jessica’s long hair. “Barbaric?” he asked, reading her thoughts easily.
She nodded her head against him. “I’ve been afraid of the Indians ever since we came here.”
Kaed smiled at this admission. “Standing Bear won’t hurt you, sweetheart. The Choctaws aren’t as—”
“Taking scalps was a practice the Indians learned from the Europeans, Jess. Barbaric, cruel—yes. But remember, they only fought back using the methods the white men used first.” He cupped her chin and she raised her eyes to his. “You can trust Standing Bear.”
“That’s what he told me about you.”
Kaed grinned. “He knows me pretty well. After the Apache had had us for a year or so, he bartered for the three of us. We lived with the Choctaw after that. I left when I was seventeen. Kevin and Marissa were so young, the way of the People is all they knew.”
“They stayed with the tribe? Even when they had a choice?”
“It’s how they were raised. Kevin was only five when we were taken; Marissa was two.” He was silent a moment. “I was the only one old enough to remember.”
“Do you ever see them?”
“I walk in both worlds, Jessi. I come and go freely in the Choctaw camp. Kevin and Marissa are married and have families. They’re both more Choctaw than white by the way they’ve been raised. I lost them to a way of life I couldn’t fully embrace. I guess it’s harder for me, because I remember our parents, our home.” He shook his head and felt her fingers moving gently, absently, over his bronze skin.
“I wondered how he knew you. Standing Bear, I mean.” Jessica lifted her head and met his eyes. “You’re like a son to him, aren’t you?”
“I’ll never think of him as my father, but he saved us from the Apache.” He smiled caustically. “They’re a pretty rough bunch. The Choctaws are reasonable, at least. I owe him for what he did. Can’t ever repay that.”
“He’s a good man. He raised a good man.” She kissed his side. “Whether you want to think of him as your father or not, it seems he did what he could to do right for you.”