The story is great and all, but what about everything that happens before the story even starts? We can’t very well have our broody hero with a dark past if there’s no past to be dark. That’s where backstory comes in, and it’s our subject for this week. We talk about too much backstory, too little backstory, and whether it’s the right time for a flashback. Spoilers: probably not.
Generously transcribed by Anna. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. With your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle.[Intro Music]
Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren and with me today is:
Oren: So before we start the podcast, I’m going to tell you all about this time I went on an RV trip with my family around the continental United States. The trip itself took about nine months. So I think I should be able to tell it in about nine hours. Once I do that, then we can move on to the podcast. That seems like a fun time for everyone?
Wes: Yeah, I think we have to hear that because how else are we going to understand the podcast?
Chris: How else are we gonna understand you, Oren, if we don’t know about this nine month RV trip you took when you were a kid?
Oren: Yeah, like that was the thing that really happened to me. And you couldn’t possibly understand who I am without knowing about that RV trip and also everything else that’s happened to my life because really we’re all nothing but a culmination of our experiences. So really, I think we should actually start from before that, so get ready. [laughter]
So today we’re talking about backstory, which is a thing that people like? Maybe? Authors like it, for sure. They like to tell you about what happened. And I wanted to talk about it, cause it’s hard to understand. I was trying to think, how much backstory should your story have? And I just got like, “I don’t know”, it’s hard for me to say how much “too much backstory” is. I just know it when I see it, which is a really unhelpful thing to tell somebody. [laughter]
Chris: I think a lot of these things, you just have to know, what are the benefits? What are the costs? So that you can judge a situation and look at the benefits and the cost for this particular piece of backstory and see if the trade-off is worth it. But I mean, there are some general guidelines we can give about when backstory is good and what it is not good.
Oren: I want those guidelines, Chris, cause I need to know them; my characters have too much backstory.
Chris: Yeah, I mean, the problem is that storytellers are always looking for ways to stuff in information that they would really like to tell and like the audience to know, but the audience has no reason to be interested. And backstory is one of those areas, where storytellers are always trying to stuff in more things.
Oren: I do think that I should clarify here that I’m talking about backstory in the story itself, not how much backstory you personally create for your character. To my mind, that is a “process” advice. So that will work for different people, different ways. Some people really like to do that, and it helps them ground the character. Other people can’t really bother, and I think both options are perfectly valid. The only warning I would give is just remember, just because you made a backstory for this character doesn’t mean everyone needs to know the backstory.
Chris: Yeah, I mean, it’s similar to world-building. There are benefits to figuring out your whole world, even parts of it that’ll never be shown in the story, but then once you do that, the temptation to include things in the story, just because you spent time making it or because you’re proud of it and you like it, is really high and it’s similar to characters. And I think for both worlds and characters, doing that extra homework can result in good things in the story by making it feel like the world is lived in and that things have history and, you know, have extra touch of nuance and all of those things. But certainly it takes discipline to then review it.
Also, I get the feeling that a lot of people, you know, they get really into their character. They make up a long backstory, and then they don’t, like, revisit: Okay, does it actually have to happen that way? Do I need that much? Does it have to be that complicated? That’s how they first imagined it, right? And they just kind of stick with it.
Oren: I have been thinking a little bit about like, what is a baseline of things we should know about this character, even if they aren’t necessarily a hundred percent plot relevant? Cause my normal answer is, should you put backstory in? Well, that depends on if it’s relevant to the plot or not, but I have thought of a few things that I think audiences expect, even if it isn’t super important to the plot, like, if I open a story set in the real world, I kind of expect to know where the protagonist is from. I’ve noticed that; it would feel really weird to me if I opened a story set in real world Seattle, and there was a character walking around and I had no idea where in the real world they were from. To me, that would be very strange.
Wes: That would be weird, yeah.
Oren: And like, I feel like I might not care about that if it was a second world fantasy or a far future sci-fi. Now, of course, that could still be plot relevant. If your character is, you know, a small town kid in the big city, it’s important to know that they’re from a small town, but I wouldn’t expect to know that this character is from the Gray Havens and this character is from Minas Tirith unless that came up in the plot. But if it was the protagonist of a modern story, I would kind of expect to know that they’re from Texas? If that’s where they’re from? That’s just a thing that I would want to know.
Chris: Yeah, I feel like there are probably some situations in which you would just make assumptions. And as long as those assumptions aren’t challenged, it’s fine. Right? Like, are we creating a situation where we have a city and we have the feeling that these characters were not raised here, right? And they’re transient characters, then that does open up questions. But in a lot of situations, when you have characters in the real world, the assumption is that unless you specify otherwise, this is where they grew up. Or somewhere nearby, or someplace that’s not particularly remarkable. Like for instance, if it takes place in Minnesota and they grew up in Wisconsin, it’s like one state over, like how important is that, really? Whereas when you say Texas and we’re up in the northwest, to us that’s something that’s a little bit more notable because that’s a significantly different culture in many cases and across the country, in a different climate, and all of those things.
Oren: And that’s why they have a cowboy hat and a drawl. Because that’s what Texas is like, right? That’s as far as I know. [laughter]
Chris: Uh huh, yeah, that’s the entirety of Texas is like that! [Wes and Chris laugh] And you know, if you have a character that says that they’ve “shoveled a snow” at one point, [Oren laughs] then it does become relevant, if they grew up in Hawaii!
Oren: This is important backstory!
Chris: Important backstory, along with our RV trip.
Wes: Very much, learning so much about Oren.
Oren: The other thing that I just noticed that I expect to know, if the character is young, I expect to know what is up with their parents. If they don’t have any, or if their parents are out of town or what.
Chris: But at this point, are we really talking about backstory? Because yes, we can see where they’re from is their backstory, but it sounds like these are just the basic traits of a character you expect to know, much like roughly what they look like.
Oren: Ohhh, is that what it is? Okay, alright. Because I have assumptions about different parts of the planet, and so knowing where a person is from would tell me certain things about them? Or at least theoretically based on how much I actually know about places?
Chris: Yeah, right, just like when you have a kid, and you expect to know what their parents’ situation is, right? That’s because that’s a significant thing that affects their life, but that’s not really their backstory.
Oren: It was actually scene-setting my ancient nemesis the whole time! [laughter]
Chris: I don’t want to give people the impression that every time they introduce a character in a real world setting, they’re like, okay, now name where all of these characters grew up! It’s a little more complicated than that, but the idea is to throw enough notable traits and context that you get a sense for the character.
Oren: I’m going to need to know their area code and their nearest national monument.
Wes: That’s a good point, traits and backstory. I think it can be done very well when it’s connected because you can have a selfish character and just have them be a selfish character. But if the backstory demonstrates why they’re selfish, that can give a little bit more significance to that trait, make it a little bit more meaningful instead of just saying, this is a character attribute, this is their flaw, I’ve ascribed to them this flaw, for reasons. But you know, I think backstory can be a good way to kind of flesh out flaws and personality traits or quirks or things like that. Given that they’re meaningful, if it’s a good growth arc. Eleanor in The Good Place, we get a lot of backstory on her selfishness, but that’s contributing to her growth largely, that’s done well.
Oren: I did recently talk about how one of the things that makes Azula a good villain is that we can see why she is the way she is and, like, why she’s so cruel and antagonistic. And I thought that made her better, but I don’t know why I thought that. Chris, tell me why I thought that. [laughter]
Chris: Well, it just helps you understand her. And again, when we’re going back to like, what is the purpose of having backstories? Certainly kind of helping you better understand what’s happening now is a key one, right? Or just make it so current events are not confusing, but it can also be, okay, we have an understanding for how Azula got the way she is, and that helps us understand her better and give us more depth, as opposed to somebody arbitrarily choosing that she’s selfish, it’s kind of less contrived, right? If you can see how it came about, it feels a little more natural, too. We can see that she’s a kid that was spoiled and rewarded for bad behavior. And that’s why she is the way she is, she has been continuously rewarded for doing that.
Oren: I’m trying to figure out if there is a good way to judge when you need that for a character trait. Cause I don’t feel like I need backstory to explain why Captain Picard likes Earl Grey hot.
Chris: Well, let’s look at these scenes. So first of all, we’re getting into the complication of visual medium versus narrated stories.
Oren: This is true.
Chris: Because visual mediums don’t have exposition. I mean, in any good way. Usually when we talk about exposition in the visual medium, we’re saying that they delivered information in a way that is awkward and annoying and is inherently bad, whereas exposition in narration is often a good thing. As long as again, it becomes much more noticeable if you go overboard with it. So we have in Avatar, all of these Azula/Zuko flashbacks. Right. That would not necessarily be justified if we were narrating, but what’s key about these is they do more than just establish how Azula got the way she did. They also establish her relationship with Zuko.
And because the struggle, conflict between them, is central to the story, it accomplishes more than just helping us understand Azula. Now that’s a key thing, one of the purposes of backstory is to just add emotional weight and meaning to current events. And the example I often use is okay, if the character suddenly runs into their ex or somebody from their past walking down the street, or because of the events of the plot, and the audience knows nothing about their past, then it’s not really going to mean much to them emotionally because they don’t have that context. So delivering that backstory and talking about what their relationship was like with their ex builds that up so that when the character then runs into them, it has some meaning.
And this is the kind of thing that in a visual medium would usually be delivered via flashbacks. Whereas in narration, I don’t think it justifies a flashback. I think that’s usually too much time and you can accomplish a lot of the same thing with some exposition that’s carefully worked in and never too much at once usually. And just having that knowledge of little tidbits and anecdotes about their relationship and not necessarily a full flashback scene of their relationship is enough to make it meaningful when the character runs into their ex, but in something like Avatar, that would be a flashback scene.
Oren: Right, because how else are they going to get that stuff across? “As you and I both know, I hate my ex for these reasons.” [laughter]
Wes: That’s some spicy dialogue right there!
Oren: [joking] We can put in a voiceover, I hear there was this really great film Blade Runner that used voiceovers, so like, people must love voiceovers. That must be how it works!
Chris: When I’m talking about the cost, that’s what I’m talking about. It’s like, okay, what purpose is it serving the story? How much time does it take so that we can balance out whether it’s worth it?
Oren: That’s a fair point. Alright, so another thought is that I often see characters criticized as feeling like they just sort of sprang into existence when the story started. And I have occasionally felt that way about characters, where it doesn’t feel like this character has any past; it’s like page one, and then this character just popped onto the street and is here now. Now is that a backstory issue?
Chris: That’s a good question. I think I would need an example to know for sure. I suspect that there’s other things going on. Like there’s something about the way that they are that feels like it needs explanation or feels contrived or feels unnatural that makes you feel like you’re missing their backstories is I suspect, what’s going on, but I would need an example to know for sure.
Oren: Maybe it’s more of a role-playing thing, because a lot of characters in role-playing games, the stereotype of the D&D character is that they have no family and friends and do things for no other reason than because it gets gold pieces. So maybe that’s more of an issue of D&D not really giving you an incentive to develop your character beyond how many attacks per round they can make.
Chris: Okay, but let’s get into that. Because the example that you just said, yes, it’s very typical of D&D characters, but they have no family or friends. That’s an unusual situation that really asks for some level of explanation. And so if you see something like that, that feels unusual. They have no relationships whatsoever and you don’t see any obvious reason why. Like if they’re like a stranger coming into a town, okay. We know why they don’t have any friends or family with them. If that context is not there, that might make it feel like they popped out of nowhere.
Similarly, when we say that about worlds, cause we do say that about worlds, it’s because it feels like the world builder has created a situation where the history doesn’t really match the present. And so we’re just like, “Wait, what? How did it get that way?” Especially if you, for instance, take the current real world and then add some magic and then you’re like, wait, but how did the same historical events happen if there were magic there that would have changed it? And it no longer feels like it fits anymore.
Oren: Oh, you know, an example that I’ve thought of is both the main characters from Lost Girl, Bo and MacKenzie, both kind of felt that way. At least MacKenzie is established to be a drifter. She isn’t from the place where the story is set, and I don’t think Bo is either, but something about them made me just feel like they didn’t have much in the way of past connections. Now that might just have been because in the first episode, Bo makes a point of how much she loved her adopted mom, because she finds out that her real mom is evil. And then in a later episode, her adopted parents show up and they are awful, so it might be the dissonance there that’s at play.
Chris: Yeah, but I would say that there’s probably something that feels unnatural that creates that “Wait, what happened? How did this get that way?” I will say that backstory becomes most important when there is actually mysteries in the past that come out during the story. That’s when it really starts to matter, and I think could even justify a flashback, “gasp”! [laughter]
Oren: Oh, a flashback! What does justify a flashback in a written story?
Wes: Getting adapted to a film. [laughter]
Chris: Okay, so you just have to know what justifies a scene and the story. And then it doesn’t actually matter where it takes place in time, as long as that is the next scene that should happen, which I know is a really complicated answer, but this question is surprisingly technical. I do have, if we want to get less technical about it, I have this really old criteria that probably in the first year of the blog I put up, which, you know, I have a more technical, accurate explanation now, but it’s surprisingly like, works surprisingly well for roughballing it. And the roughball way of doing this is okay, will the character remember this moment in 10 years, right? Does this feel like an emotionally important moment? If you take this out, will future scenes be different? And is there any conflict in it? is my criteria for what justifies the scene. And generally that works surprisingly well to measure, you know, and if it’s something that’s important enough to remember in 10 years, and if you take it out, future things will be different, but doesn’t have conflict, maybe you should just add conflict to that. [laughter]
Oren: Yeah, more conflict!
Chris: But today, when I look at it, I look at it in a much more technical way, where I look at, okay, this is the structure of the story, right? Which starts with a problem and ends with a resolution of that problem. Where, if we feel that a threat might be coming, which is kind of what the problem is, then we no longer feel uncertain, whether it’s here, or the worst has happened, or, oh, phew, this problem is solved. And then between right before the problem is solved or, you know, not solved, we have a turning point. And those things all need a scene. So you kind of have to look and see whether those junctures in the structure are happening, because if any of them are happening, usually that means that you should have a full scene.
And if you, for instance, have something in the past that actually performs that function and it might be something like a character has some sort of magical way of visiting somebody’s memory would be probably one of the closest ways, or if the character has amnesia and they have a memory come back to them, that kind of thing. Because that’s what makes it so that it’s actually changing something in the story so that, because this happened, future events will not be different because new information was revealed and now they will act differently based on that information. That would oftentimes be like a turning point and it would justify a flashback because it justifies a full scene, and in this case, the turning point just happens to take place back in time.
But that’s kind of complicated, [laughter] so my three question criteria is an easier way to roughball it than pinning down every moment of the structure.
Oren: Just as a side note, I love that we have combined “eyeball it” and “rough-draft it” together and “roughball it”, that’s the new tool we’ve created. I’m a big fan.
Chris: Really? Cause if I wrote that in blog posts, I’m pretty sure one of my editors would be like, “Uh, excuse me, Chris.” [laughter]
Wes: “Uh Chris, what did you mean by this?” [laughter]
Oren: Well, look, we were just talking about the differences between prose stories and film stories, right? So here we are in the differences between a blog post and a podcast. Okay, so I have another question because I really love to write protagonists who are older and have lots of history, like they’ve done a lot of things. And they’re all grizzled and they could tell you, you know, about the horrible things that happened in their past or whatever, just cause I love that kind of character. That kind of character is notorious for having too much backstory. So I’m just like wondering, is there a way to do that that is good? Question mark?
Wes: I just like what Chris has been saying, that as long as you’re feeding more than one bird, right? As long as you are using one hand to feed multiple birds, and if a scene’s warranted, it’s multitasking, then do whatever you want, right? [laughter]
I mean, I don’t know, it’s been fun in a D&D campaign I’m in right now, I’m playing an elf and I’ve never played an elf before. I’m a Drow and I’m 134 years old. And so I’m like, how does that matter if you’re in a story and it’s just been nice, age just means that you can kind of weigh in on things differently as a character. And I don’t know how much backstory needs to go, but if it’s urban fantasy set in the 90s and your character is 60, I don’t feel like any backstory has to be justified, but you can apply the broad range of lived experience on current events as well, without saying, “oh, back in my day”, as much fun as that is, you know?
Oren: Every elf character I play in D&D if we’re even close to high level is 200 years old. I don’t know how to play young elves. It’s like, no, why would I do that? [laughter] I resist doing that for low level characters, cause it feels very weird to be like “I’m 300 and I’m level three.” [laughter] “I haven’t been doing much adventuring.”
Chris: Yeah, there’s a couple of things that are kind of complicated when you’re taking a character that has all of that deep history. It’s about, okay, how much complexity are you overloading your story with? And similarly to that, how much of that’s backstory is actually involved in the current story, and are you setting up a situation where, like we talked about using backstory to add emotional weight, but if it feels like this is the last of a trilogy, where we have a character and everything that they are encountering is from their backstory and the backstory is really complicated, and if we don’t explain all that backstory, it will mean that we can’t feel anything when they have these emotional moments, right, and we don’t have the context for why the things that are happening are important to them cause we don’t know that deep history, then we end up in a situation where we can either overload the story with excess information and kind of drown it to try and get those moments to be emotional, or we can skip it and leave the story feeling kind of empty.
So that can happen, so you have to be careful with that, and how much of the backstory is necessary in this story, but you can still get those kinds of characters if they can have a lot of history, and as Wes said, they just feel like they’re seasoned, right? Without necessarily making it so that all of that backstory has to be explained to the audience in detail, you can make the backstory simpler, that also helps, and just have it so that, even if they meet some people from their past, we don’t necessarily have to be relating tons of backstory in the present. So, yeah, that’s the long answer. [laughter]
Oren: That’s good, that’s more than I knew before. Before I was just kinda like, “oh, whatever, I’ll just eyeball it, it’ll be fine.” [laughter] Yeah, roughball it!
So I will give one tip that is handy: When in doubt, if you’re adding backstory, I would recommend making it central to the plot if you want readers to care about it. And obviously you can’t do that with everything because you only have one plot, hopefully. So if you can’t have, like, everything that you’re imagining in your character’s backstory and then have all of it be part of the plot, as with many things, you have to pick which thing to emphasize, you can’t emphasize all of it. But if you want to highlight a thing in your character’s past, where they’re afraid of sword fighting, because in their past they accidentally injured a friend during a training bout, and they feel guilt over that, make your story resolve with a duel that they have to have, or choose not to have, or something. Because that is relevant and it’s much more likely that readers will care about it, as opposed to, if you have that same backstory and your character gets wigged out watching two people have a duel, but your main story is about treaty negotiations.
Chris: At that point, it’s adding more complexity than it is paying off for the story if it’s not related to the rest of the story, if it’s just, you know, “Hey, some things happened to this character. No, it’s not going to matter.” Then why are we bothering to explain?
Wes: It’s nice when the backstory plays into the processing of current events, which, you know, we’ve kind of touched on before. I was trying to think of a good written example that I liked, and I enjoy the biologist in Annihilation because it’s her perspective on things and the backstory we get about her husband, her scientific method, is all in service to figuring out what the heck is going on in Area X, you know, through her journals. And I found that a good way to give me some stuff while also informing me more about how this character is experiencing the governing mystery of the story, so, journaling.
Oren: Actually, as an example of a story that I think uses backstory pretty well in a very focused way, I would say The Dresden Files. Now, not everything in The Dresden Files is good. Or even in this backstory, the depictions of Dresden’s mom and his, like, quasi-girlfriend are kind of sexist. Although on the other hand, it is kind of cool that his mom is his primary magic parent. That’s kind of unusual in fantasy stories, but regardless he has a backstory that in the first book you find out the relevant things that you need to know for that book, which is that he killed his initial mentor in what he says was self-defense, and since you’re in his head, you know he’s telling the truth, but other mages don’t know that. And so as a result, he’s under really intense scrutiny and that’s part of the plot.
And you find out some other small things that don’t seem like a big deal at the time that become more important in later books, and it’s just a good example of having a character with a lot of backstory, but you don’t need to know all of it at once. You don’t need to know more about his training partner because she’s not important until book, I don’t know, three or four, and you don’t need to know as much about his mom, cause she’s not important until later and you can remember them and you know, later it’s like, oh yeah, that thing, you’d put a little pin in that.
Chris: Another example of backstory that didn’t feel like it was paying off is in Iron and Velvet, which is another urban fantasy noir. The main character, of course, is a P.I., and we make a big deal that her partner died fairly recently. And, we have scenes where she’s thinking about what she would’ve done, if her partner was there, but he’s dead now, but it’s very strange because it feels like that should be part of a character arc for her? Where she should have responded to the partner’s death. There could be something, some grief that has to be dealt with, some bitterness, or just, you know, that mystery of how her partner died was unsolved. And it should be a big deal to have a dead partner there as part of her character and part of the story, but it just doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t feel like it’s even part of a character arc.
Oren: That is a classic example of a partner being on the mantle that was never fired, as it were, as a Chekhov’s partner with no payoff. [laughter]
Chris: Chekhov’s partner, yes!
Oren: And here’s the thing is that, if you wanted to have that in the character’s backstory, but it wasn’t part of the first book, I think you could make that work. Just start the first book with her, at least, seeming over this death. And we know she had a partner who died at some point, but we don’t have to keep focusing on it. And then in a later book, she can discover something that brings it all rushing back and now she feels guilty because she didn’t save her partner or what have you. I think that would’ve worked fine.
Chris: But because it’s so significant, but it doesn’t form any kind of arc in the story, not even a character arc of her getting over her partner’s death, it’s just like, why? Why did we do this? It feels pointless.
Oren: Yep, I definitely experienced that, but we are over time. That’s another thing that I have experienced. We spent too long talking about my RV trip. So now we’ve run out of podcast time. So I think we’re going to have to call it there. Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com, where you can ask us about our backstory, but before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson, who’s a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel (thefantasywarrior.com). And finally we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.[Outro music]
This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening/closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Colton.
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