Never look back. That warning must be embedded in our historic memory, springing from one of the myths we were raised on. There were always dire consequences associated with the rejection of the advice to keep eyes forward. Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of potassium chloride, and poor Orpheus lost his beloved Eurydice thanks to his insecurity.
The fables make me wonder what the literary gods would do to a writer flouting the ‘never write backstory’ rule. But almost every religion has resources rooted in the past that give people a sense of security about an unknowable future. Maybe it’s a false security, but it’s reassuring nonetheless. Surely a reader comes to a point somewhere along a narrative arc when he needs to know how a character got there; how well does the author know the character? Can the reader trust the author’s judgment? It’s that whole dilemma Alice struggled with in Wonderland; the fear that ‘you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been’. This is a variation of the quote attributed to George Santayana-“Those who are unaware of history are destined to repeat it.” For all the advice meted out in MFA classes about never using backstory in fiction because it reverses the forward drive of the action, there are plenty of others from successful authors supporting the need to present a past for the characters as a way of grounding readers in the present.
There’s also pertinent advice about not giving readers too much of a character’s history too soon. The first chapter is not a good place for it and, in fact, it does reek of information dumping if it comes all at once. But there are many wonderful ways to drop hints furtively along the narrative path, including devices like letters from the past or even time travel from chapter to chapter. Time compression moves information forward, and when done with ingenuity, none of the excitement gets lost.
I don’t argue for a minute with the advice that backstory needs to be let out slowly in order to increase the mystery surrounding the motivation for a character’s actions. In Draft, a series in the New York Times about the art and craft of writing, Lee Child wrote a piece titled A Simple Way to Create Suspense. The premise was that we’re all programmed to wait for answers to things as long as we hear the questions when they’re asked. Even though he doesn’t deny the need for some information about characters’ former lives, he wants only the minimum necessary to make some sense of them. He reminds authors that, “The basic narrative fuel is always the slow unveiling of the final answer.” I ascribe to dropping hints about that final answer as the narrative unfolds, with a wealth of opportunities weaving through the plot to satisfy a reader’s curiosity. Backstory can be filled in with flashbacks, dialogue, direct narration, summary, recollection, and exposition; and there are as many ways to script it as there are characters.