March 11th, 2011


In Which We Go Back To The Beginning

Or, Oh The Stories You’ll tell



Okay. The Ninja Katz are duly distracted by their Jedi Training Device favorite laser toy. One cup of coffee is already whizzing through my bloodstream while another steams nearby. The Honeydukes candy jar is freshly packed with a wild variety of M&Ms (I’m an equal opportunity M&M enthusiast—I love them all muchly). Time to talk Back Story.


There is much debate on the dire interwebz about . . . well, everything . . . but also about how much back story to include in a story. Theories abound about the perfect back story-to-current event ratio. My personal feeling has always been to use only as much as a story requires. No more, no less. Backstory tends to tempt a wealth of exposition, something I try to stay away from. Don’t get me wrong; back story can be one of the most effective weapons in the writer monkey’s arsenal when used sparingly. It is not the BFG (Big Freakin’ Gun), BDS (Big Damn Sword), or WMD (Weapon of Mass Destruction). Remember that back story is all about headology. It is, rather, the trigger on the BFG, the pommel of the BDS, the fuse on the WMD. Done right, you can use back story all the time because, well, that’s what human beings do. Our personal experiences influence the way we think, determine action and reaction, inform dialogue and conflict. So should it be with character.


Character back story, as put forth by TWN,  begins with chronology of dates or ages. Date of birth, first day of school, first crush, first kiss, first love, first sex—first, first, first. Growing up consists of long stretches of time between milestones, moving across a threshold from one state of being to another. There are great books out there that provide whole time tables of history, a useful reference tool for when you need to know what’s going on in the world, politically and culturally, during the years a character grows up or for when the story takes place. I utilize the mighty tome The Timetables of History: A Horizontal Linkage of People and Events, by Bernard Grun.


Hang on, I know what you’re thinking. Using such reference tools is all well and good for most fiction, but what about genre? Especially something like fantasy where the world must be built from the ground up? The good news is, regardless of the world they dwell on, people are still people. They’re still born, still love, still live and die. And all the really best genre fiction treats setting as another character. 


A friend of mine and I recently engaged in an geeky lovefest over setting. (Hey, Stunt Donna!) She extolled the virtues of the new Dragon Age game and begged me to start the Fire and Ice series by George R.R. Martin, as I am seriously late to the party. In my defense, however, I was able to recruit her and her husband as Browncoats. Better late than never, I guess. The whole point of fantasy, we agreed, was escapism. All the best genre has such a well-developed setting we want to live there. Would Harry Potter have been a truly great series if we hadn’t all been dying to go to Hogwarts? (Still waiting for my letter, McGonnagle.)  In Firefly, Serenity was more than just a ship, it was a home we all loved as much as her devoted, damaged captain. In order to immerse ourselves in the story, it is imperative to immerse ourselves in setting. One wrong note has the power to shatter the illusion.


Setting as character is by no means a fresh concept, though I first learned about it while listening to director commentary on Firefly (I’m a DVD commentary addict). Desperate to understand the genius behind my new master (sorry, George), I tried to soak up every single word and learned a lot about the integration between character and world. As I worked on a chronology for our Fallen Knight, the lesson really took. As a knight in training, FK would have spent a chunk of his formative years away from home, broadening his horizons. Not to mention the years of his exile. What would he have experienced that turned him into the semi-wreck that he is at the beginning of the story? What about the world would have put him into such dire straits?


A world needs politics as a breeding ground for intrigue and war, an economy to provide resources and luxuries to its people, a physical environment with geography and weather, not to mention cultures, where people can live. If it all sounds like a game of Civilization, that’s because it kind of is. The world needs its own back story—a history—that influences why things are the way they are today. It was this realization that gave me a much more solid understanding regarding the various conflicts happening now, who’s behind it, and why FK and Dear Old Dad, with their similar experiences and traditional training, don’t see eye to eye. It’s also a valuable reminder that, small as FK’s hometown is, it is still part of a much larger world where Things happen, followed by Consequences that affect everyone.


The development part of the process is the forum for all the exposition. As I come up with a date for one of FK’s milestones, I then switch gears to look at the world as it stands during that time. This gives me insight into primary schooling (First Day of School in conjunction with First Crush), First Job (as a page, preliminary training for knighthood, a sort of secondary school), First Time Away From Home, First Journey Abroad (to become a squire at sixteen), First Drink followed by First Sex (tavern/brothel with fellow squires), and so on until our story starts. As I picture these scenes in my mind, I also begin to see the world in which they happen.


Next Up: Dream Weaving