So, I’m drafting a fantasy novel, and it currently starts with the main character about to leave for magic school at seventeen. Around when she was twelve, she met this guy who’s already a mage and who agreed to train her before actually getting to said magic school. Right now this extra training is pretty vital to the story, since one of the protagonist’s arcs is about unlearning some of the harmful misconceptions about magic and mages that this mentor instilled, and that mentor goes on to become an antagonist later. Question is, how do I establish this preexisting relationship in a natural way? I really don’t want to use a prologue, but all my attempts to start the story when she’s seventeen have felt a little off, since the intervening years with the mentor have been hard to summarize in an impactful way. Is there a middle ground possible here? Or does the plot itself need to change so there isn’t so much preexisting context?
Thanks for the help!-Svend
Hey Svend, great to hear from you again!
You’re right that a prologue isn’t the right move here. Even if we put aside the problems a prologue causes, it wouldn’t be enough to establish such an important relationship anyway. This is a mistake a lot of authors make: they think that if they include some backstory in a prologue, that’s enough to make readers care about it. In reality, prologues usually go by too quickly for any kind of emotional attachment to form, so they become little more than trivia.
The solution here is to establish the protagonist’s backstory when she’s at magic school, which is when it’s actually important to the plot. How you do this will depend a lot on the specifics of your story. For example, let’s assume the protagonist is still on good terms with her old mentor. In this case, you would bring up the backstory when she tries to learn magic at school. Her air magic professor tells her that to fly, you must give an offering to the air spirits, but that’s all wrong! The protagonist remembers how her old teacher taught her words of ancient power that could make her fly without all this lengthy offering business.
This would then lead into the hero’s arc of unlearning the bad lessons her old teacher taught her. Maybe it turns out that those command words actually force the spirits to help against their will, or maybe they drain some of the user’s life force. You can also still have the old mentor in the story. Maybe he writes the protagonist letters where he commiserates with her about how stuffy and stuck in the past this school is, or maybe he drops by occasionally to see how she’s doing.
Alternatively, if your hero has already broken with her old mentor, then you can bring up the backstory when she tries to unlearn her old method and fails. She makes an offering to the air spirits, but they don’t heed because they’re still angry from all those command words she used on them. She’s trying to be better, but the temptation to use her old magic training is ever present, especially if the conflict heats up and there’s something more important than grades on the line.
Those are just two examples, but the common thread is that you establish backstory that’s important to the current plot. That’s what makes it compelling context instead of boring filler. The other thing to remember is that you shouldn’t hide critical backstory for the sake of a meta mystery. If the hero is having trouble learning new ways of doing magic, just explain that it’s because she was previously taught a different way of doing things. Don’t wait until half way through to make a contrived reveal about her former mentor.
Finally, a few relevant posts to check out.
- Judging What Backstory to Keep and What to Let Go
- Is Backstory Necessary?
- Why We Have to Let Go of Meta Mysteries
Hope that helps, and good luck with your story!