Sunday, October 15, 2006


Backstory in a novel is very important. People, whether real or fictional, are completely shaped by their pasts. Still, I get annoyed when I read a book where a character (usually the heroine) wallows in events of 20 years ago, using them to affect her actions and attitude now, and never refers to anything that happened in between. I think more recent events would temper the affects of past ones, most of the time, or at least impact them.

I've had a good life. How I live it now, and who I am, have been influenced by growing up poor, with parents who divorced when I was seven, and a mother who was ill much of her life in ways that were barely identified, never mind treated properly. None of that is part of my day-to-day living, though. I don't think about it much, and certainly don't blame most of my choices on my past. But there is one overriding theme of my childhood that has a huge influence on me, and not in a good way.

I had a dream last night. I have this friend, and we're so alike in so many ways that the differences hardly matter. We could be together non-stop for a week and not run out of things to talk about. In my dream, we were at a very elegant conference where she was a Big Deal--featured speaker, presenter of two workshops, hanging out with people who are far cooler than I am--and I wasn't a part of it. It was like I wasn't even there.

(Then the dream morphed and I was trying to get my second suitcase that held all my nice clothes, that I'd left on the baggage carousel, and the airline people were giving me a hard time because it was my own fault. But that's irrelevant.)

I woke up and imagined telling this friend about this dream. She'd be irritated. She's always irritated when I tell her I feel inferior. So I started thinking about why I feel that way. It's certainly not because of her.

I went to three different elementary schools, so I didn't have a lot of friends. I've always been introverted and shy, so it was hard to make new ones. In middle school I had a few, but in the last semester my lunch was different from theirs, so I sat with some other kids in my classes. Eventually, they asked me to sit somewhere else because I didn't talk.

In junior high there was a group of girls that bullied me. I had a new boyfriend who was pretty geeky, and they were picking on me about it. I don't remember the exact taunt it was in response to, but I yelled "Because he's nice!" back through a set of doors. One girl came charging up behind me and shoved me in the back. I went flying and skidded on my stomach across the carpet.

The two years I spent in that high school developed okay. I shared most of my classes with a particular group of kids, and in our junior year they were friendlier toward me. I got invited to my first party. Then, out of the blue, they told me I couldn't hang out with them anymore. My mother said the girls were probably jealous because I was getting attention from the boys (I always had more friends who were boys than friends who were girls). But they never told me why they didn't like me anymore. I was left to feel that I just wasn't worthy.

So I have an accumulation of things that contribute to how I felt in that dream. Things since have tempered it--I moved again before my senior year and went to a great school with kids who liked me, I made plenty of friends in college, I now have a fabulous group of friends through my writing associations, and for the most part, I don't let what happened in the past bother me.

But every so often comes this inferiority complex when I start wondering what the hell someone would see in me. Why I'm worthy of friendship with this amazing, funny, self-assured, adored person who could be friends with anyone. No one would understand why I'd feel this way unless they knew my backstory.

So I think the bottom line is flavor. A story has to be flavored with backstory rather than chunked with it, and even if there is one overriding event or series of events that dictate a character's personality and viewpoint, there have to be other things that either feed or alter it. If there weren't, it should be clear why.

Something I need to keep in mind as I revise my current book. :)


Erica Orloff said...

Hi Natalie:
It wasn't until I got to college that I realized I had a very unusual upbringing. It shaped everything about me . . . every single thing. And it filters through my characters a lot. I never had friends growing up--one or two, here or there. But I was always the outsider. NOW, I treasure my uniqueness because hell, the crazy stuff and the interesting stuff, and the illegal stuff makes for excellent fiction! :-) It sure wasn't boring.

I tend to think of back story like method acting. Method actors want to know the motivations and back stories of their characters so they can inhabit them, some of them going so far as to meet with their director and inventing a lot of back story. Yet only a PORTION of that will end up on the screen. I think that's how back story should be handled in writing a novel.


Natalie J. Damschroder said...

NOW, I treasure my uniqueness

That resonated with me. I do, too! I'm mainly content to be who I am. It's just these stupid dreams that fuck me up! LOL That, and hormones. *eye roll*

I think that's how back story should be handled in writing a novel.

I totally agree. I just wish it were easier to do.