Backstory—what is it good for?
Yesterday I indulged in another rant about Thomas Harris and the decline of Hannibal Lecter, which brings me to a larger problem of which all writers should be aware: the pitfalls of backstory. Before we begin, I should point out that my views on the subject are somewhat extreme, which has led to occasional disagreements with readers and editors. But after years of writing, reading, and watching film and television, everything I’ve ever seen points toward one conclusion: backstory is deadly. It’s boring, it brings the momentum of the narrative to a halt, and most damningly, it does nothing to enhance our appreciation for the characters in a work of fiction. Characters are defined by what they do over the course of the story. What they’ve done before the story begins just doesn’t matter.
There are at least two reasons for this. The first, as William Goldman points out in Which Lie Did I Tell?, is that characters—especially heroes—must have mystery. Our favorite characters in movies or literature, whether they’re Hamlet, Lecter, or Rick Blaine, leave as many questions unresolved as they answer, which is why they’re so interesting to think about. In my experience, the less we know about a character’s past, the more intriguing he becomes, provided that he’s also interesting now. Conversely, if a character isn’t engaging in the context of the story itself, it doesn’t matter how fascinating you’ve assured us he was in the past. Many writers like to introduce their characters with long biographical digressions, as Carl Sagan does in Contact, but this rarely works as intended. It’s far more important to focus on what the character does in the moment.
For proof, look no further than AFI’s list of the top 100 movie heroes and villains. Many of these characters have since been exhaustively explored in sequels, novelizations, and fanfic, but the striking thing is how little we learn about them in the films where they made their greatest impression. We learn nothing of James Bond’s backstory in Dr. No, or in any of the classic Bond films—and even in Casino Royale, a deliberate attempt to show us the early Bond, his life before the movie is left unexplored. The same applies to Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, to John McClane, and even to Atticus Finch and T.E. Lawrence. And this is doubly true of villains: there’s Lecter, of course, but even Darth Vader, who remains just a man in a mask until the end of The Empire Strikes Back. In many cases, we’ve learned a lot more about these characters since then, but with few exceptions, this has nothing to do with why we fell in love with them in the first place.
So what’s a writer to do? At the risk of sounding pedantic, I’ve made a list of my own highly restrictive rules for backstory, with the caution that these only reflect what works for me:
- Don’t give any backstory in a character’s first appearance. A sentence or two briefly explaining who he is and why he’s here, if necessary, is more than enough. Just slide him directly into the action.
- Don’t worry about motivation. As long as the character’s objective in each scene is clearly defined, you don’t need to explain how he was shaped by events that took place years ago.
- After the character has been established by a handful of good scenes, and his role in the story is clear, then, if you must, insert some backstory. But no more than necessary. And always, if possible, conveyed through action or dialogue, rather than through flashbacks.
One last paradox: if you’ve followed these rules, readers are going to want more backstory. You’re going to get pleas for backstory from readers, from agents, from editors. Resist them if you can. If they want to know more about a character, it means you’ve done your job as a writer. But that doesn’t mean you should give it to them. Just ask Thomas Harris.