1. J.C Adkins
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    J.C Adkins Member

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    How should I approach telling my Characters backstory?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by J.C Adkins, May 5, 2015.

    How much back-story and world history should you describe in the beginning? The world is a fairly busy place in this story, with much potential for a back-story. How much character/world back-story should I give at the start, or how much should I provide over the course of the novel?
    The novel I am working on is post apocalyptic, and begins where two of the MC's back-stories is that they escaped from a cultic dystopian state. One of them was an unwilling Concubine of a ranking officer captured via conquest as a slave.
     
  2. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Ideally, none. It's best to let the reader deduce the situation. I'm not saying that that's easy, but it is, IMO, infinitely better.
     
  3. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Write it, let the backstory filter in, no need to tell the readers everything you, the author knows. See how it comes out, then revise it as needed.

    Unless, of course, like me you decide it's not backstory, it's actually part of the story. In that case you need a whole different approach. ;)
     
  4. VirtuallyRealistic
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    VirtuallyRealistic Active Member

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    You want to avoid info dumps (Walls of text that serve no purpose other than to inform the reader of something). You want to explain the situation organically, let the topics arise on their own.

    Say, for example, the MC needs to find clean water, but you explain that rivers and lakes are no good because of radiation left from nuclear war (If it's that type of post-apocalyptic). The setting can then be told unobtrusively, and in an interesting fashion.

    Ideally, by the end of the first chapter, the reader should understand that the setting is post-apocalyptic. They should also have a general idea of the type of environment this entails; whether it's nuclear fallout, zombies, plague, etc. I don't think it's necessary to fill out the entire back story within the first chapter, but by the end of the novel the reader should feel that he/she has a strong grasp of the world you built.
     
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  5. J.C Adkins
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    J.C Adkins Member

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    Maybe. I don't plan to go into much detail about the war that caused the breakdown of society, however wouldn't it be fairly important to give some insight to what the MC is running from?
    True, that is partly the route I think I will take. I will probably reveal who the MC was a concubine of in a later chapter. But what would be appropriate in the beginning?
    There is a paragraph describing what the Main character looks like, followed by action the rest of the chapter.
    Should I write a couple sentences "She was an unwilling concubine, a slave, to a ranking officer." etc in my first paragraph, or make it a prologue?
     
  6. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    No, don't tell us this, show us. Tell us her thoughts as she is being used. Tell us how she feels about this man taking advantage of his position, and how she feels about being treated as no more than an expected participant.

    In my case the backstory is my protagonist's life experiences before she deals with her current situation. I could just have intimated that she was bullied, and how she dealt with it, or I could show it in all it's painful detail. I opted to show it. But it didn't make sense to start the story with these younger years. So I wove them into the current story as a parallel story.

    If I just wanted to make it known why my protagonist was who she was, I would have simply revealed it a little bit at a time.
     
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  7. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    At the start, you might want to hold back a little. You want to get the wheels turning and the caravan going swiftly right from the beginning. However, over the course of the story, feel free to tell about their backstories as much as you like, it's your novel after all, although I'd recommend keeping it relevant. Reveal things we as readers benefit from knowing (perhaps it helps us to understand certain character decisions better, or you can use the info to foreshadow something). Yeah, the golden rule is to tell the story not the backstory, and it's good to keep that in mind, but especially SF/F stories flesh the characters out, not just in terms of what's ahead and how they develop, but also how they've come to be the people they are. I'm also reminded of Dan Simmons' Hyperion, which is pretty much a compilation of the characters' back stories.

    The way I've done it is that quite a lot is left for the reader's imagination. The building blocks for their pasts are there, but it's kind of like the reader has to arrange them into a whole. Blocks of text detailing someone's past can get pretty boring and feel irrelevant, so in that sense I'd be mindful of how much I share of their pasts.
     
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  8. VirtuallyRealistic
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    VirtuallyRealistic Active Member

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    The phrase I've heard more than anything in my journey to learn the craft of writing is, "Show don't tell." It's fantastic advice, and I'm working really hard to get it right. It's not always easy finding good opportunities to show something.

    Like GingerCoffee (Ginger, Coffee, Coff, GC?) said, it's important that you show us what is happening instead of simply telling us. It's much more gripping for the reader to see it over hearing it. If she was an unwilling concubine she may have an instinctive negative bias towards men. So perhaps you could put her in a scene with another man, and in this scene she has a brief flashback to the days she was a concubine. That gives you the opportunity to show the scene instead of telling it. You should always be looking for ways to do this; only resort to telling if you truly have no other options.
     
  9. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I'd do neither. Focus on the character's present, but have her behave the way someone with that kind of past might. She's probably deeply traumatized, so that's going to show. Perhaps her companion(s) will inquire about it, and then she can mention a few things, or she might only visit her backstory in her thoughts. Although I'd imagine she'd do her utmost to not think about slavery all that much....
     
  10. Hwaigon
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    Hwaigon Contributing Member Reviewer

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    I think one of the great lead-ins is when one of the MCs opens up a topic, say, both MC's common experience, then one of them -
    the one who did not open the topic - conjures up memories of that particular experience. To me this approach sounds very natural and non-invasive and
    can tell a lot about chars.
     
  11. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Neither, IMO. I might try to tuck it into internal-thought musings, rather than direct narrator backstory. (I also don't know that I'd start with her appearance.)

    If it were my story, my first draft of that beginning would be something like:

    Jane peered round the edge of the doorway, then pulled back. Dammit. Dammit. Dammit. More soldiers. More self-important, strutting... she shook her head and focused on backing further into the ruins of the bakery as they marched by. A dozen at least.

    Had she always hated soldiers? It was hard to remember how she'd felt before she became part of the Major's...staff. Household. Entourage. What category did a concubine fall into? Did it depend on whether she'd applied for the job or been drafted to it?

    The feet passed and faded into the distance. She was just starting to relax when...
     
  12. J.C Adkins
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    J.C Adkins Member

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    Concubine means a woman in a polygamous situation that ranks lower than the wife like a mistress, sometimes taken as a slave from a religious war.
    I didn't originally think about adding the original escape scene in the beginning, I plopped them into the wilderness. However I'll probably change that in the name of showing instead of telling.
     
  13. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    Unwilling concubine implies an element of rape and male domination - especially as this is a promotion from slave!
     
  14. Mckk
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    I think it's important to give some background and ensure your setting and timing are clear from the beginning - however, how you give this background is the tricky part. Infodump where you tell it like a textbook isn't the way to go - it's best if the character reveals it as you follow her journey. Other ways include having something happen in the story that piques the reader's interest, makes them ask questions, and then readers tend to forgive, even enjoy, a bit of info given in the narrative. Keeping the reader's interest is basically key.

    At the beginning things have to be clear, but you don't have to answer all the questions. The basics of where, when, who, what's happening and a very basic why should be there though, I think. Not that I've perfected it but there you go :)
     
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  15. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I know. Those were the character's thoughts, not mine.
     
  16. writer23
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    writer23 New Member

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    Just my advice... go right into the action. Paragraphs describing how the main character looks feel overly expositional to me, particularly as a story opener. I usually integrate looks with the action, like "A strand of light brown hair blew into her face as the wind picked up." If you have a whole paragraph , especially as your hook, a reader might get bored.
     

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