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.
One of my favorite methods to get at both questions and answers, is through children. There are no human beings more curious about the past than the children who didn’t witness it; and if it’s their immediate family’s history or stories that explain the actions of grownups around them, they’re unrelenting in the quest for knowledge. The quote (maybe from Cicero) above the Library at the University of Colorado is, “Who knows only his own generation remains always a child.” Obviously children have a burning desire to grow up, and that too is preprogrammed in their DNA. So that’s why I find them the most natural and unrelenting answer-seekers and the best choice of all to get at the past in my fiction. Lewis Carroll’s Alice really knew where she was when she said, “I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.” But hearing stories about the past is different than trying to relive it, and much more likely to support a person’s own growth.
I’ve just started to write a follow-up to my recently finished novel set in the mid-1800’s, and never having done a sequel before, I’ve found there are interesting challenges. Has a reader come from experiencing the first novel very recently? Is it fresh and clear in its history lessons about both the era and the characters? What if the reader never read the first one? Should it be essential to the understanding of the second, or is the goal to make them stand firmly on their own without the support of that ‘slow unveiling’ of the backstory comprising the first novel? Like most things in life, I have a feeling it’s a little of both. So if I’m going to assume a reader of the second novel has come to it after a long hiatus from the first, or perhaps never having read the first at all, then I need not only to place them in time and locale, as they’re historical novels, but also fill in at least a minimum of information about protagonists they’ve never known or may have forgotten.
What better way is there to set the backstory than with the unrelenting, but often poignant questions of the novel’s children? Without guile or tact, they always go right to the heart of the history an adult most often wants to avoid. And with unerring perception, they recognize a deflection or smokescreen a mile away. The opportunity to watch how an adult character handles those childish queries is an invaluable spotlight, bringing the backstory forward without turning the narrative backwards or slowing it down; and an ‘information dump’ is not only sanctioned but specifically called for, which doesn’t mean you have to oblige, but you can get away with it.
Yet, if anything, children’s queries always seem to bring up more questions. What a wonderful way to get at information the reader wants (and the author wants to give) while never relieving the pressure of the growing mystery. Let the children learn about the past in the furtherance of their own “becoming”, as Plato would say. As we’ve learned from modern psychological and behaviorist writings, the nature vs. nurture argument touches on the role of past events as causal in current or future events, so you, dear reader can’t possibly avoid asking a few private questions, too; questions hinted at when you looked back with the children, that will only get answered when you read forward to the final chapter.