1. sunsplash
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    sunsplash Bona fide beach bum

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    Backstory for minor characters: too little vs. too much

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by sunsplash, Oct 23, 2014.

    When reading a novel, have you ever come across a minor character or event that, while given the basic rundown of what is necessary, leaves you wanting to know a bit more, even if it's not fully relevant to the story unfolding?

    I recognize that the author probably has many pages of notes and backstory for this character so is himself aware of the history, and it makes me wonder where the line lies that separates including an unnecessary tangent from making an excessive (mental or actual) edit? Is this something that writers should be able to recognize themselves, remembering to keep in mind that everything they know about a character's background isn't always revealed on the page for the reader? Does it come down to beta readers to point out and ask why more wasn't shown for a writer to see where an expansion might be enjoyed, even if not necessary? Not every minor character or event peaks the interest of every reader to want to know more, even if in just a few extra paragraphs, so from a writer's perspective, I'm curious how this area is navigated: the extra tidbits don't move the story forward means should be excluded vs. gauging what details might be interesting and added as long as it doesn't draw out or stall the story?
     
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  2. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    I can't say I've ever been left wanting more of the back-story of a minor character, but I have read stuff where I've skim-read large tracts because IT REALLY DOES NOTHING FOR THE STORY!
     
  3. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    This answers your question.

    What it sounds like to me (and I have no idea not knowing if the story you are really asking about is your own, so this is purely impression) is that you love the minor character. I'm reminded of Twilight where Meyers wrote a sequel side story about one of the vampires in the vampire army.

    Sometimes we have a much larger world/story in our heads than the one that ends up on the page. Ask yourself if the reader needs to know about the character. If not, leave the backstory out but keep it for material for future stories.
     
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  4. sunsplash
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    sunsplash Bona fide beach bum

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    No, it's not my story and the minor character in the book I'm referring to isn't around long enough to form any attachment to. He is a deceased family member of one of the secondary characters who is inheriting property that once belonged to him. He is referenced to have been a former slave who came into his own land during Reconstruction and eventually had it taken from his family. It's an interesting tidbit that I would've liked more expansion on even though his history is irrelevant to his descendent's storyline.

    It made me think of how the author probably had an entire history laid out, who he was before being freed, how he came into the land, what his family established during the time they owned it, etc. but because it really wasn't pertinent information, it wasn't included passed the character development sheets. Because I was curious as a reader to know more about what is essentially a mere blurb, it made me wonder as a writer if the novel would've been better/worse had more detail been included. I personally would've enjoyed a bit more of a history but realize it makes sense to leave it out. It also made me wonder if the author didn't realize the extra history could be appreciated by the reader or if it was left out purposely to let the reader imagine whatever they wanted. Then that led me to my own writings to consider all that I know about my characters that is not included in the actual narratives, would there ever be any benefit to giving the reader more...and from there, where to distinguish between what to gift them and what to let the reader dream up on their own?
     
    Last edited: Oct 24, 2014
  5. stevesh
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    stevesh Banned Contributor

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    Better to go too little than too much, I think. I'm reading the second book of a series right now, and there are several minor, but recurring characters. Every time one of these characters makes an appearance, we learn a very tiny bit more about them, which seems like a good way to go about it to me.
     
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  6. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    In the film La Femme Nikita, the character of The Cleaner was meant to be an almost trivial inclusion. Yet Luc Besson kept adding backstory during production, and liked the character so much he re-invented him, named him, and created what is one of the most compelling films ever made: Leon.

    Sometimes, backstory can be a seed to help create something else. Leave it out unless you need it right away, but plant it somewhere regardless.
     
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  7. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    You can get into dangerous territory doing this. How do you know while you're reading, what will end up being relevant to the story as a whole, and what won't?

    Often small tidbits come together in very important ways that are not apparent as you read them. Maybe one of the character's 'irrelevant' family connections will end up providing the key to the story's resolution. Maybe some arcane skill he's picked up in his youth will become relevant in a crisis situation. Maybe somebody he knew back then will reappear and influence the story in ways nobody expected.

    It's one of the problems with critiquing snippets of stories here on the forum. Critics often think that something doesn't matter, because they don't see a use for it then and there ...but it might be crucial to resolving the story.

    I always read as if every bit of the story is important, or the author wouldn't have put it there. I trust the author not to waste my time. If the author lets me down? Well I'll trust them less next time around.

    One of the biggest 'backstory' irrelevancies that most people have encountered is the Tom Bombadil segment of The Fellowship of the Ring. It took up a lot of space and time, so I assumed Ol' Tom would come back into the story later on. He didn't. The moviemakers wisely left that bit out when they made the movie. A good editor would have had Tolkien cut that bit altogether, or certainly make it less important. It didn't do any harm, ultimately, but it's a good example of unnecessary backstory.
     
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  8. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    Call me lazy, but I don't want to have to work that hard on a book. That's probably why I'm not overfond of classic whodunits, because I don't want to have to remember that Aunt Lucy took a bath on a certain Thursday, and she never normally does that...

    If the author is going to use this character for something meaningful later, I'd expect a bit of prefiguring, rather like the black hat or the ominous music in a film.
     
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  9. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    That's fair enough, and I don't like having to remember silly details either. I think a skillful author makes the details that are relevant stick in your mind, although they won't remain front and centre, and their significance won't be immediately obvious. (Otherwise the story ends up being very predictible.)

    I feel there is an unspoken agreement between author and reader—which may or may not be honoured by both parties. The author promises not to waste your time. The reader promises to give the story a fair go, and not make premature decisions about which details are relevant and which are not.

    If the author ends up wasting your time with irrelevancies and personal indulgences, then you probably won't read this author again. If you skip over what does have eventual repercussions in a story, you will miss the point.

    Style is another issue. Some stories are very dense, others gallop along. We all have our preferences, don't we?
     
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  10. karmazon
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    karmazon Member

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    I agree with GingerCoffee. When I read a story I usually have few overarching questions in my mind (will the sheriff kill the shark? And will he overcome his fear of water?). Anything irrelevant to those main story questions, like an extensive backstory of a minor character, is quickly forgotten or skipped entirely.
     
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  11. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Ah, but the Tom Bombadil segment proves your point. For if the hobbits don't go by way of Tom's house, they most likely would not have ended up in the Barrow Downs at the day, time, and weather they did. Or if they had, Tom wouldn't have been looking out for them to rescue them from the Barrow Wights-- nor would the younger hobbits have obtained their spell-wrought swords endued with the power of Westernesse. And without a such a sword, and Merry would never have been able to slay the Lord of the Nazgul in the battle before Minas Tirith.

    Then too, the house of Tom Bombadil is where Frodo has his dream of rain that is fulfilled when he sails to the blessed West.
     
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  12. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Well, they solved that dilemma really quickly in the movie, if memory serves me right. They all got swords. I think Elrond gave them the swords, didn't he? I can't remember how they did it, but it got done.

    I didn't hate the Tom Bombadil section at all, but it turned out to be not really necessary to the story, except for the swords. If Tolkien had written the sword-getting bit differently, the episode would have been completely unnecessary. AND it took up a lot of space. In fact, whenever I re-read the Lord of the Rings, I usually skip Bombadil altogether. But I certainly didn't skip it the first time, so you're right. I would have missed the sword-getting, if I'd skipped over it because it was 'boring.' (Actually, it wasn't boring the first time through. I was mesmerised by everything in that book with the possible exception of the Elvish songs!)

    It was a different age, and books weren't being edited to the bone like they are now. In a way, I miss that.
     
    Last edited: Oct 28, 2014
  13. cutecat22
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    cutecat22 The Strange One Contributor

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    That's where the writer has a choice - to either furnish the reader with all the facts or let the reader make up their own mind about the character's pasts. I like to drip feed my readers with little bits about certain characters either by using flashbacks or within the dialogue of other characters but there are times when the information is just not necessary to push the story forward. However, I would be very tempted to use these things (flashbacks and dialogue) in order to slow the story down a little and maybe pad out a 'quiet' section.

    One of my readers got in touch with me last year and asked "how do you do it? Just when I think the story is starting to level out, bang! you hit me with something that blows me away, how do you do it?"
     
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  14. cutecat22
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    cutecat22 The Strange One Contributor

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    Absolutely spot on! And I totally agree about critiquing snippets, as far as the whole story goes, I don't think you can actually critique a snippet and then make comment on the story as like you say, they may think that a tiny thing doesn't matter and shouldn't be there when actually, it's the seed being set for the pivotal moment of the book later on.
     
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  15. Ulramar
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    Ulramar Contributing Member Contributor

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    I write these characters anything that may be needed for them in the next 100 years. Then I cut it down in the writing itself to what's actually needed. Then I toss in a little extra (usually about family) to give them a bit more flavor. Otherwise, I'm careful not to drown the reader in too much unneeded nonsense.
     
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