Writing Ramblings: Backstory

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Jane Eyre. Great Expectations. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

What do all of these novels have in common? They’re all Bildungsroman novels, and we spend almost a decade or two with the protagonists.

In the context of these novels, it makes sense because they are so focused on protagonists growing up and overcoming hardship. But it’s also something I don’t see often, and for that I’m thankful.

By the time this is published, I will have finished The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. The reason I mention this is because this novel is what inspired me to write this post. While I enjoyed reading it, Arden spends much of her time building up Vasya’s childhood; it’s a little long-winded, and I’m not entirely sure it was all necessary.

To me, a good novel begins shortly before the main action of the story. Quite honestly, I don’t think I need much backstory, even for my protagonist, even if it is focusing on them overcoming hardship. I can come to know and understand a character without much of that. Unless it serves the story or message, I think most books can do without pages and pages of backstory. Besides, too much history and too little plot makes for a rather boring book.

I also think there’s value in not knowing everything, in leaving some elements of a character’s backstory up to interpretation or imagination. Besides, I would rather get to know a character throughout their adventures rather than through their irrelevant history.

This isn’t to say that I’m opposed to some backstory. It’s more that I’m opposed to excessive backstory. Maybe have a short prologue with a glimpse into an important moment in the protagonist’s life. But I don’t need to know everything right away. Every page of backstory must serve a purpose, and more than likely, fifty or so pages don’t serve much purpose.

Essentially, I think that we need to remember that the reader doesn’t necessarily need to know everything the writer knows, at least not right away. You can weave a character’s history into the novel instead of telling it all right away. And honestly, that’s what I enjoy more. When you meet someone new, you don’t know everything about them right away. More than likely, you learn as you go. Why shouldn’t that be the same with the characters we meet in books?

But I also know that I’m one person, and there are people out there who might disagree with me, so I’m interested in hearing your thoughts. Do you like a lot of setup (world building or backstory)? Do you hate it?

Let me know in the comments below. 🙂

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