Thursday, October 21, 2010

Back-Story, Music & Procrastination

Every character has a back-story.  Even if it’s just the girl who works in the bakery where the protagonist buys his lunch. The reader might not know her back-story, because it might not be relevant, but the author probably knows that she’s twenty-two, she lives with her boyfriend even though she doesn’t see them together in ten years, and she’s worried that she won’t make her car payment for the month.

Back-story is even more important for major characters. Back-story adds depth, even if it’s not immediately apparent. The back-story is your character’s skeleton. You build every thing else around it. You don’t have to see it to know it’s there. It gives structure and form to what would otherwise be an absolute bloody mess.

I love working on back-story. It’s a higher form of procrastination. If I spend hours puzzling out the familial relationships of a character who is only going to appear for a couple of paragraphs, well, that’s not really wasting time, is it? That’s back-story.


In real life we don’t usually meet someone and ask them for their entire life story in chronological order since early childhood, so a lot goes unsaid. In my novel set in ancient Rome the character, Atreus teams up with my hero to solve a murder. The reader knows very little about Atreus: he’s a plebeian vigile, he lives in the Aventine, he has a niece, and he’s taciturn. Because Atreus doesn’t talk about his past, neither have I. But I know his back-story. I know that his family died during an outbreak of disease, I know that he was once an apprentice plasterer, I know that he joined the vigiles because his best friend did, and I know that Lucilla isn’t really his niece. And even though none of this had been broached, it still influences and motivates him.  

I once started a novel set in a mediaeval monastery that was possessed by demons. I never finished it. The scrawled note in the margin says: Too smart-arse, which I think means that my protagonist, Adelmo, did not have the mindset of a mediaeval monk. He was an anachronism. He came out with things like: “Every time someone says they don’t believe in God, somewhere, a pope dies.” And “I’m very humble. I’m quite proud of how humble I am.” Or, when the abbot reminded him that he should try and live by Christ’s example, Adelmo replied, “I’d rather not, Look at what happened to Him.” Too smart-arse. The story will still work, I think, if I tone down the smart-arsedness and concentrate more on atmosphere. I’m using the work as an example here because I really went to town on back-story on it. 

I did the usual: index cards, time lines, and family trees. Then I took free personality tests online, and answered them in character to build psychological profiles. I’m not crazy, but Adelmo might be. Then I took the “Which character are you in your favourite TV show?” quizzes for each of my characters, just to see if my characters bounced off each other the way Lee and Kara did in Battlestar Galactica. And if not, why not? Where were they different? I played around with it for ages. It was great fun.

But my most brilliant (and most anachronistic) idea was to give every major character a theme song. Their personality, and their motivation, wrapped up neatly in about four minutes. I even gave one to the cat, because I could. And I was very surprised when Isolde, a character I’ll admit I added just to get a girl in the mix, turned out to be a very good match to Rob Dougan’s Furious Angels. It turns out she had a fierce determination that even I didn’t know about, and was so much more interesting afterwards. Music allows for nuances that index cards full of notes don’t, and nuances are vital. My novel might be unfinished, but at least it has a soundtrack. Fifteen songs ranging from the mediaeval to the modern, and whenever I play it I am reminded of how those characters shifted to fit the songs I found for them, and how all the songs now fit together for me to set the scene. It doesn’t matter that I haven’t looked at this manuscript in months – years, probably – the music takes me straight there.

Back-story loves a soundtrack. 

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