“…the actions of your characters need to have psychological validity and, at the very least, a visible connection to some behavior explanation with roots in the past. Backstory is how you make that happen.”
– Larry Brooks, Story Engineering
In a scene between mystery writer Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey in Dorothy Sayer’s Gaudy Night, Harriet laments that her latest novel has “gone sticky.” The plot is solid, but the characters are lacking, making some of their actions unbelievable. Lord Peter suggests an alteration to the main character’s backstory, but Harriet objects:
“But if I give Wilfrid all those violent and lifelike feelings, he’ll throw the whole book out of balance.”
“You would have to abandon the jig-saw kind of story and write a book about human beings for a change.”
“I’m afraid to try that, Peter. It might go too near the bone.”
“It might be the wisest thing you could do.”
“Write it out and get rid of it.”
“I’ll think about that. It would hurt like hell.”
“What would that matter, if it made a good book?”
Later on, Harriet hears the same criticism from the Oxford dons she’s staying with: that her stories are not “psychological,” that they are more concerned with “fact” and, as Lord Peter says, are “jig-saw” stories. By this, we understand that Harriet’s stories are plot-driven, that as a mystery writer, she’s concerned with the hows, whens, and wheres of the whodunit more than she is with the whys.
I mention this because I, too, have had to stop and work on my protagonist’s backstory. The plot I worked out for class is for the most part sufficient, but my protagonist, Mila, lacked clear motivation for achieving her goals. Knowing that motivation is often found in the backstory, I finally sat down the other day to hash out some of the details of Mila’s past life. I typed, stream-of-consciousness style, allowing the details of an important backstory event of which I only had a nascent impression to reveal themselves, and…
Major event. Major trauma. Major impact on the character. Major inner demon to overcome. And, wouldn’t you know it, the event gave me a new character – an antagonist (or antagonistic) character – for the novel itself. He has to be there now. It just makes sense.
It’s a great development, but, to echo Harriet, it’s thrown the whole book out of balance. Now I have to rework the plot to accommodate both the past event and the new character. The goals are the same, but the way Mila will work toward her goals must change. The ground is shifting beneath my feet on the eve of the week I had hoped to start drafting scenes and chapters.
Am I discouraged? In part, yes. My plans have altered; I have to plot the story out, again, just when I thought I was ready to write. But “what would that matter, if it made a good book?”
Lord Peter reminds me that, in working to make my plot points fit together, I can’t lose sight of my characters. The character’s actions might make the plot “work,” but if they make no sense on a human level, then the jig-saw won’t come together, no matter how much I might try to shove and manipulate the pieces. Character drives plot, and plot drives character; the two cannot be separated.
Going “near the bone,” as Harriet says, is risky. It reaches into those vulnerable parts of ourselves that we’d rather let alone. But perhaps this is the wisest thing we can do. Our stories require it.
Image Credit: WikiCommons