One of my professors in graduate school asked the question–Did Lady MacBeth have children?–to illustrate the fact that fictional characters don’t actually exist beyond the words on the page. “If it isn’t in the text,” he told us, “it has no meaning.” He then backed up his point by making us read a silly journal article that argued that Lady MacBeth’s problem in life, the reason she prompted her husband to murder King Duncan, was because she was the ultimate bad mother.
Which brings up a question about past experiences and memories. Do our fictional characters have them? Are they important?
Since today is the Fourth of July, a national holiday, I thought I’d share a brief memory from my own childhood. I was born in a small city in southern Wisconsin at a time when neighbors knew each other. Every Fourth, just before dusk, we and our neighbors for blocks around in all directions would head for one house. The white clapboard bungalow (I’m going from memory here) sat on a generous corner lot sloping sharply upward from the sidewalk. That slope and the fact that the house faced southeast, towards downtown, made it an ideal place to stretch out on a blanket and watch the fireworks. And that wasn’t all. The people who lived in the house—I can picture an older woman in an apron—made gallons of lemonade and dozens upon dozens of cookies and brownies to serve. Someone brought sparklers, and the children were warned not to touch the shooting stars.
Is my memory correct in all respects? Psychologists tell us that very early memories are usually remembered fragments of an early emotional experience, filled in by family conversations or photographs. So is the picture in my mind less reality and more the emotions the scene evoked in me? I can’t answer that, but the question of memories is one writers must face.
Obviously, we want our fictional characters to come across as real people with complexity and context–which means they had a past, they had families, they had experiences that affect their present outlook on life, determine their actions, and shape their hopes for the future. This is true (or should be) of all our major characters, both the good and the bad. It’s called backstory. But which memories and past experiences are important to the story, and how do we put them on the page?
I don’t have all the answers, but I can offer five reasons to include backstory:
- Creating Believable Motivation
- Raising the Stakes
- Deepening Character
- Creating Reader Empathy or Antipathy
- Triggering the Plot
I love what John Irving said about memory: “Your memory is a monster; you forget—it doesn’t…. It keeps things from you, or hides things from you—and summons them to your recall with a will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you!”
What are your earliest memories?
Why and how do you include backstory in your writing?