The past has a past. Writers call it backstory – the stuff that we know about our characters and plot but maybe don’t even hint at in the novel itself. Sometimes the fact that our protagonist likes peanut butter sandwiches because it reminds him of the best summer of his life is a plot point, sometimes it only informs the way we write him. But what happens when you write yourself into a corner and need a new piece of information to get out? I say just invent the backstory and fill in the holes later.
Seriously, even if you’ve published 17 novels in the series and you are only now realizing that peanut butter sandwiches will save your plot, what’s the harm? People are always learning new stuff about themselves and their families. I’m going through some rediscovered family letters from 1917 that put a completely different spin on one of my ancestors. They also gave me the idea of using a piece of information that wasn’t in earlier novels if I need it now. Revealing bits of information along the way is what readers expect from us, after all. They don’t need to know that we only just thought of it.
My latest round of family history research has uncovered odd little connections that I think would make great stories if I could figure out how to make that information relevant to my readers. Just because I think it’s cool that my mother’s people have a connection to both Tolstoy and Lenin doesn’t mean my reader will care. My mother gave me a clue, however, and I’m passing it on to you. She is translating the last letter her great-grandfather wrote to his family. He died in exile long before my mother was born. Although she was interested in what he did and told us stories that had been passed down to her, she never felt a bond with him until now – after she became a great-grandmother. “Self,” I said, “you need to provide your reader with that same bond.” Also, I need the relationship my character has with her backstory to show up in the plot, not just in character development. Like the picture above, all the connections I make with the past must braid together nicely and lead straight to the reader (or, in the case of the picture, the viewer).
I checked off the last item on a huge to-do list (one that spanned several months), and decided I needed to reward myself. Since I just happened to be going by the See’s Candy store, it was obvious what that reward should be. As I filled up my shopping basket – giving no thought whatsoever to the cost in calories or dollars – it occurred to me that this was a good time to re-examine my characters’ backstories. I realized I may not fully understand the go-to rewards for all my major characters, especially the villains. As it happens, Susan, the protagonist of the Chenille series, is a confirmed chocoholic. Yes, this is a case of art imitating life. All of my characters have some aspect of me in them, and Susan got the sweet tooth. That makes it easy to write scenes when she rewards herself; the other characters, not so much. Now that I have a little extra room in my schedule, I’ll spend part of that time considering what motivates the characters who are least like me.