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Saturday, December 14, 2013

Back to Backstory: Author Day on Beat Street


December, 2013
Love it or hate it, backstory can help you. Wherever your characters live and breathe is where your backstory needs to be, and the fuller you can make it, the better. You may not have time on your first draft, but as you are revising and refining your story, I bet the characters you are writing about are changing too. That’s as good a time as any for backstory.

Meaning...you take time to write the history, substance and subtext of your characters. They may be waltzing down the street with friends, howling at the moon, but what are they truly thinking? What does the guy on the right—the one with the plaid jacket that no one else gives a fig about—wanting right now? A beer, TV and a girlfriend? Or a book of poetry?

It’s up to you to choose, but you need to choose something. Otherwise the characters you’re writing won’t have the dimension they need to engage your reader—even if they’re hanging face down on the side of a thousand-story building.

I may be saying this because I’m a playwright and started out as an actor; I wouldn’t have set foot onstage without knowing at least some of my characters’ backstory. I’m also saying it because I’ve been spanked before, and rightfully so, missing opportunities to give my characters dimension. When I started writing The Beat on Ruby’s Street, I thought I knew the main characters so well I didn’t want to waste the time on backstory. As the book progressed though, I got to a point where I was very, very stalled.

I wanted to keep going with the story, but couldn’t find anything new in it. So I started writing bits and pieces about each person that showed up in my main character Ruby’s life. At the time, it felt like a mini-vacation from the main event and was also fun. Which, by the way, is extremely important to me because without fun, creativity stretches thin as wet paper. And there are days when you just want to shove that ms in a drawer and pretend you never wrote it.

Those are good days, I think, to start up some of the subtext living inside your characters. If you’ve been reading this blog, you know it’s all about subtext for the people in Ruby's neighborhood. While the blog stories have very little to do with the actual book, writing them gave me keys to how Ruby lives and the choices she makes.
 
I know some of you may have your plays/novels ready to go, so there’s no desire or need for backstory. Others may be feeling stuck, or even starting over. Wherever you are, backstory can help spur ideas you may not have thought of before.

Start with a moment in your character’s day—waking up, at a party, or on a bus—and go from there. Let your thoughts wander, but make sure they are wandering as your character. Go for five minutes or two hours. Then try another character and start again.

I started with characters that didn’t loom very large in Ruby’s story, but they were people I wanted to know more about; Cyn at the leotard store, Sky and Blu at the candy store and Elena at Sorocco’s restaurant. Discovering that Blu had a secret fantasy about swimming made her come alive to me in ways she hadn’t before. I think that made the scene I wrote with Mrs. Levitt a lot stronger.

I tried to write something about all the characters, but there are still some that could have used more (like Jo-Jo, who is Ruby’s brother’s girlfriend.) This blog gives me a chance to learn more about them, even if the book is already written. 

And who knows? Maybe I’ll find out something intriguing enough to use for a second book—or even a second edition.
 That’s what I love about backstory—you never know where it’s going to lead.

Have a favorite backstory for one of your characters? Share it here or send it to me at www.jennazark.com.


Photo by David McLeod; U. S. Army Competition

Mermaid: Andrew Stawarz