Remember, this project, Current Events, dates back to 1986 as an incomplete short story. Last year when I revisited it, intending to begin the novel, I went to my thick Ideas File to refresh my memory. I decided to input those notes on my computer as a way of getting the wheels turning. They varied from hasty one-line notations that now made no sense, to starter scenes two or three pages long which developed into sections and even whole chapters. Other ideas got added to my Notes file, or were slotted into a rough chronological order in the Outline. Anything relating to a specific character I entered into the separate Characters Notes.
Much of this early material will remain as back story. Back story is everything that happens outside the narrative you are telling. It can be a kind of historical background of the place, a deeper characterization of one or more characters, an explanation of the situation, a glimpse into the future, or even secrets that only I, as the writer, will ever know. Most of the back story will never make it into the novel; that is not its purpose. Its purpose is to provide a framework upon which I drape my narrative; and it is an emotional foundation which supports dialogue, motivation and action.
The back story for most of my characters begins with their name, as I wrote earlier. But it should go much deeper. From insignificant details – favourite colour, food, hobbies – which can turn out to be indicative of important personality traits without being pointed or contrived, to factors that influenced their lives, their morals and their attitudes – schooling, religion, where they grew up, what their father did for a living, their income level, family and other relationships, and so on. Because the back story is not written to be part of the final narrative, it may contain relationships with people the reader will never meet, situations and lines of dialogue she will never read. But every item, individually and as a whole, serves the building of a character’s psychological make-up, just as every thought and deed influences our motivations and reactions in real life. The deeper the writer goes, the more well-rounded and sympathetic, the more real, the character will be.
Until I was inputting my notes on this project I would have said I don’t bother with back story. Then I realized this is the purpose of my Ideas file. When the project has been on the back burner for some time, as with Current Events, most of the notes I’ve made are little snippets relating to the main protagonists and secondary characters – not so much physical details as telling scenarios as I mention above. What is that, if not back story?
Here is a sample, copied directly from my Characters file:
MELISSA (Carole's sister)
1. She’s in a lifeless marriage
husband: Doctor (pediatrician) – KYLE is a good guy, basically
From the outside, she makes a show of a happy marriage. But she treats Kyle as if he is not there. (And maybe he isn’t)
2. They have 4 kids, all boys, Kevin – (“leave the cat alone, Kevie” – 4½ ?); one is still in a crib - 20 months?– Corey – at what age do they go to a real bed from crib?; twins – Jordan and Jason, just-turned 3
3. She has a bizarre way of raising the kids
she makes a game of cleaning up so the kids will help;
she doesn’t let them in certain rooms – they hang out at the edge of the carpet like that dog I remember that was trained not to walk on the carpet.
4. She talks in – is it called hyperbole?? Exaggerating?
It’s not enough to say: “What are we doing here?” She has to say: “What are we doing here? Does anyone know?”
5. She is always eliciting compliments. She has two methods: 1) “I’m so ugly” – meant to draw denial; or 2) “Wasn’t I smart to do that?” meant to draw praise.
6. She goes along with her mother on everything – to her face. Lila is unaware of what her daughter does and says behind her back.
7. She’s basically lazy, but she finds a way to get things done so they look good on the surface.
8. she has a group of friends who, though spread across the country, stay in touch by circulating a pair of plastic pink flamingoes on special occasions; they used to have an annual girls’ weekend– in New York one year, at some ritzy spa the next – she feels left out of that now, they still do it, she’s stuck in rural Nova Scotia, not even in a city.
9. she clings to the “image” of herself as a teen model - she did some modelling locally. She wants so badly to be someone others look up to, for others to say “I want to be like her” – but she is aware, or maybe it’s a fear – that she has basically ridden on people’s coattails to get any attention at all. Now, e.g., she is the ”doctor’s wife”.
10. She is a closet alcoholic
This is Melissa’s blueprint. Her back story. Some of it will make it into the novel; most of it will not. Because, as with any new acquaintance, these are only first impressions. As I come to know her better, I expect to find that I misjudged her unfairly in some ways, and that my instinct was spot-on in others. But, like you, the reader, I may not know which is which until the last page.