Wednesday, September 16, 2009


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?


“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.”

“What happened?”

“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.”


Skhye said...

I'm dying to read FIRE EYES now!!! I love Kaed's backstory. :) Can't wait to see what you've done to him. LOL

Cheryl said...

Hey Skhye!

I always seem to make my men suffer more emotionally AND physically than any of my heroines have to go through. LOL Kaed has had a really harsh life, but I think you will like the way it all comes out in the end for him. I always say, when you read a Cheryl Pierson story you KNOW the hero is going to be wounded, physically and emotionally--I really tend to hurt my guys. LOL Even in my short stories. Speaking of which, in my short story A NIGHT FOR MIRACLES (Dec. 2 release) I have a wounded guy in that one--a gunfighter. You'll like it too, I'm betting!

Samantha Gentry said...

Cheryl: One of the things I stress in the fiction writing class I teach is that characters are what they have done and what has been done to them. The backstory you give a character speaks directly to his motivation.

Cheryl said...


That is soooo true! I say the very same thing to my students. It's amazing how so many of them have never even thought of that, even in the context of their own lives! We all are, partially, what our past has done to us--the rest remains to be seen with what we do WITH our future.

Thanks so much for commenting!

Helen Hardt said...

Cheryl, this was a great post. Tying backstory in seamlessly and avoiding the info dump is a challenge, but so important to plot and characterization. And Skhye, you'll love Fire Eyes!


Tanya Hanson said...

Good blog, Cheryl. And Helen calls it just right. But what I am seeing a lot of (awkward LOL) in recent reads is backstory, or info the reader must know, happening in dialogue, which is okay, but GIANT dialogues without any action tags or conversational tone. I mean, most of us don't speak in full perfectly grammatical sentences. Or stand there for ten minutes without doing anything LOL.

Oh blather. What do I know LOL?

Yes, wounded heroes do rock. That's why romance rocks, too, because you know he'll have some sort of HEA.

Cheryl said...

Hi Helen,

Thanks for your kind words. Tying it all together in one big ol' package 'ain't' easy! LOL Thanks for commenting!

Cheryl said...

Hi Tanya,

YES! I have noticed, too, those long segments of diaglogue where we have to go back and count backwards to know who is talking! That is really irritating, isn't it?

Ah, yes, the wounded heroes. They just HAVE to have an HEA, don't they? LOL

Thanks for coming by Tanya!


Celia Yeary said...

Cheryl--I needed this post on backstory. I've struggled with this aspect of novel writing, and so have the members of my little writing group. We had a discussion about it yesterday. Most want to give it all out in a prologue--like me--but I know there are better ways so as to not bore my reader to death. Thanks for this--and for using Kaed as a example! Celia

Cheryl said...

Hi Celia,

I think there are times when a prologue is justified. When there is a cataclysmic happening that sets the stage for the story to come, I think that warrants a prologue--just so we know what world we are entering. If something has happened in ages past (usually fantasy or sci-fi) that affects the current story, again, I think a prologue is warranted. But for westerns such as ours, I just think it's better to dole out the backstory in bits and pieces as we go--makes it so much more intriguing to learn about the characters and what shaped them, and what they'll DO with it from here on out. Setting is so important--not just physical setting, but emotional setting as well...hmmm, sounds like another good blog topic.LOL

Thanks for coming by, and congratulations on your NEW RELEASE!!!!


Mary Ricksen said...

There is such a fine line between backstory and telling instead of showing. I personally like a bit of backstory. So shoot me.

Debra St. John said...

Cheryl, Great post. It's such a fine line. The backstory is so integral to our characters and makes them who they are. But it's so tricky to figure out how much of it is needed and where. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Celia Yeary said...

Mary's answer tickled me--Elmore Leonard called all that rambling, such as backstory or whatever--"hooptedoodle." Don't you love that? It means useless, but Elmore Leonard said he read every word of it.Celia

Mona Risk said...

Cheryl, I took a workshop with Donald Maass a few years ago. He said to avoid backstory and introspection in the first 30 pages for a single title or in the first chapter for a Short contemporary. HQ taught me to sprinkle the backstory as I go along, as needed to explain the characters' motivation. Great blog.

Cheryl said...


I DO TOO!!!! I like to know what to expect and not be sitting there trying to figure EVERYTHING out! I think there are things we need to know from the very beginning in order for the story to make sense. If they shoot you, they'll have to shoot me, too!LOL


Cheryl said...

Hi Debra,

You are so right about that. And you know, one of the main things that seems toughest is knowing WHERE to start the story--at what point. Starting it too soon gives us too much backstory to wade through, but starting it too late means that we are clueless unless the author fills us in with huge chunks of the backstory that we need in order for it to make sense. It's really hard sometimes to decide what would be the perfect place to have the story begin, isn't it?

Thanks for commenting!

Cheryl said...

I love Elmore Leonard! And I love that word, "hooptedoodle"--just describes it so perfectly, and I'm like Elmore--I read every word, too.LOL

Cheryl said...

Hi Mona,

You know, I don't think there should be any hard and fast rules about backstory other than don't do the "info dump" on your poor unsuspecting reader. That violates the reader's trust, in my opinion, that they are picking up a book to enjoy a great story and getting slammed with a history lesson, etc.

I like the sprinkling of the information along through the book, so the information is given gradually, more so after we get to know the characters a little, but I'm not sure if you can always totally use that first 30 page rule--I don't think I did with Fire Eyes, anyhow, because Kaed was alone and having to make a decision, so I had to get into his introspection. Probably a good rule of thumb to use, though, in most cases.

Glad you enjoyed the blog--I really love to talk about backstory--it gets overlooked a lot in the rush to talk about characterization, plot, and so on.


LK Hunsaker said...

Cheryl, backstory is absolutely essential for well-rounded characters. And as you say, not as an info dump!

Great post. :-)

Cheryl said...

Hey Loraine!

Glad to see you here! Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Yes, the dreaded info-dump. LOL I've been guilty of that a time or two in my early days...