Backstories

Questions, skill improvement, and respectful critique involving game writing.
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beastcarving
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Backstories

#1 Post by beastcarving » Thu May 23, 2019 5:13 pm

When I tell stories, I some times like to add multiple backstories: any time a character's introduced, or anytime they're having conflict. I just sprinkle back stories everywhere when I feel like it's right for the moment. Thoughts?
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Re: Backstories

#2 Post by Mutive » Tue May 28, 2019 1:32 pm

I tend to not like this very much. There's a time and place for it, but getting a long backstory any time a character is introduced can break the flow for me.

(e.g. "Sarah walks into the room, her eyes downcast. She's sad, of course, because her relationship with Matt is on the rocks, which reminds her of the time her parents divorced. She was eight at the time, and even though they told her that it wasn't her fault, she never really believed them. Also she had to move to a new, small apartment that was a long way from all of her friends, etc. etc.")

Generally I like it best when the backstory is woven into the overall story, throwing out the pertinent facts as needed. (This also keeps me, as a reader, from being able to forget those facts, which can happen in a long story where Sarah's parents' divorce might not be mentioned for another 10K words.)
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Re: Backstories

#3 Post by beastcarving » Tue May 28, 2019 2:14 pm

Thanks for the example. I'll definitely be more careful not to break the flow with backstories. I'll try to keep them brief if a backstory is necessary to the story plot.
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Re: Backstories

#4 Post by Ezmar » Tue May 28, 2019 7:04 pm

I agree with keeping backstory out of the limelight. If the knowledge isn't something the reader needs to know, it can usually wait. I've written stories where background information about a main character wasn't fully explored until after they had died. You don't need to know everything about a character right away. Show, don't tell.

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Re: Backstories

#5 Post by LateWhiteRabbit » Tue May 28, 2019 7:55 pm

I would also add that many of the most popular characters are archetypal. Adding backstories (especially EXPLORING those backstories) to such characters can actually diminish the impact of the character. Very often less is more.

I would say that Wolverine, Darth Vader, and Han Solo were better characters when their pasts were a mystery. Familiarity breeds contempt, as they say.

I would not bring up or mention anything about a character that is not directly pertinent to the story being told. As the writer, YOU may know the character's history and what brought them to this point, and use it to inform your characterization, but the READER never needs to know those details. Just think about all the people you interact with in the real world on a daily basis - you rarely know their backstories, even if you work with them, and you don't NEED to. You just know their personality, and that is informed by their history.

Mystery keeps players/readers moving forward. Don't be so eager to give it all away.

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Re: Backstories

#6 Post by beastcarving » Tue May 28, 2019 11:13 pm

Well said. I never looked at it that way. I really thought it was the thing to do every time I introduced a character in my first project. I've already got my editor working on taking all of that unnecessary backstory from my first project. After reading all of this feedback, I've realized just how unnecessary those backstories are, even though I enjoined writing them. Really, thanks for the replies.
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Re: Backstories

#7 Post by Ezmar » Fri May 31, 2019 10:07 am

LateWhiteRabbit wrote:
Tue May 28, 2019 7:55 pm
I would not bring up or mention anything about a character that is not directly pertinent to the story being told. As the writer, YOU may know the character's history and what brought them to this point, and use it to inform your characterization, but the READER never needs to know those details. Just think about all the people you interact with in the real world on a daily basis - you rarely know their backstories, even if you work with them, and you don't NEED to. You just know their personality, and that is informed by their history.

Mystery keeps players/readers moving forward. Don't be so eager to give it all away.
I agree with this completely. Giving a detailed backstory when you introduce a character is unnecessary unless you're trying to desperately convince the audience that they have one.

Point of order when introducing new characters is to establish any prior relationships that will be relevant to understanding the next several lines immediately afterward. If things will be clear enough without mentioning background information, don't bother. But sometimes you may want to make something clear that wouldn't naturally be evident in the character interactions. In the opening scene of my story, I take some time in the middle of the scene to clarify the relationships the two supporting characters have to the protagonist; one is a friend of many years, the other is closer to an acquaintance. At the same time, I'm establishing the protagonist's character through how he's describing them in his internal monologue.

The reason I took the time to lay things out rather than letting those aspects be discovered naturally is that while they would have come out organically sooner or later, certain details are unimportant, so I make them known earlier on so they're not distracting later on. For example, one character is from a different part of the country, and I establish that right away so that the reader isn't wasting time wondering about that detail when it's referenced later on. It's something that might be mentioned, but it's common knowledge to everyone involved, so there's no point in hiding it from the reader.

Basically, it's a question of "what information does the reader need to know right now for the scene to be understood naturally?"

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