photo by MizGingerSnaps

I am at last living my dream. I’m writing to you from the country kitchen table in our Brooklyn loft-style apartment. My iPod is docked into a high fidelity speaker playing the chilled nu jazz of St. Germain and Greyboy. A small white cup of espresso is at my elbow. On the gallery-sized wall opposite me hangs a giant abstract canvas dense with gold and purple, a composition both passionate and rich, chaotic and ordered.

Outside our converted factory building is a neighborhood bleeding hipness: a flash mob of coffee bars, restaurants with locally sourced credentials, custom skateboard and guitar shops, bespoke tailors catering to transgendered citizens. Don’t think about shopping for boots that aren’t grunge or records that aren’t vinyl. You won’t find them here.

Yes, I’m living my dream. I am surrounded by neutral tone smartness, open kitchen awareness, high wrap-around windows, and a skyline view of the chic urban mecca of the moment, Brooklyn. In the midst of this trendy dream, though, there is one discordant note. In the corner of our living space is a red Roadmaster toy wagon.

When I say red, I mean primary red. It’s a loud eye explosion in an otherwise understated haven of neutral-hued serenity. It’s a neon-colored lollypop dropped in the lap of a gray wool Ludlow suit. It jars. It belongs, needless to say, to my six-year-old. I pull him around in it. We haul away garbage bags and recycling in it. (The allowance he gets for that chore is exorbitant, if you ask me, but around here everything is expensive.)

Currently, the red Roadmaster wagon is filling up with Norwegian spruce branches and giant pine cones, doing seasonal duty as whimsical Christmas décor. Above all things that red Roadmaster wagon is, in a very real sense, the vehicle for our kid’s childhood memories. He’s going to pull it around for the rest of his life.

Which brings me to your novel’s backstory. Every character has inside them a little red wagon filled with garbage and joy. What is the purpose of this backstory? Inexperienced novelists regard it as a well of motive. What happened to a character in childhood, good or bad, explains who that character is and why they do things the way that they do. In beginner manuscripts all that backstory is dumped on the reader right away, in chapter one or two, so that the character will make sense.

How wonderful for characters—and how unfortunate for readers—when those characters arrive with their therapy finished and their inner selves perfectly understood. I mean, it’s not wrong. It’s just that there’s nothing left to discover, no mystery, no place to go or ongoing need to master oneself. The inner journey is already done.

Life isn’t like that. We pull around our little red wagons all through our adult lives. We may think we know what shaped us in childhood. We tell those stories to our eventual spouses or partners on the third date and repeat them for years. We think we get ourselves. But we don’t. Not entirely. If we did, we’d be at peace. Instead we peel away onion layers and learn something new about ourselves day by day, year by year.

I used to teach that backstory belongs in the back (second half) of a manuscript, which it does, as if the only issue was its deployment. I know better now. Today I know that backstory is not simply backdrop, nor is it a troubled starting point or a healing destination at which to arrive—although it ought to serve those functions.

The problem with those conceptualizations of backstory is that they sanitize and contain it, conveniently rehousing it in the “before” and “after” of the story. Characters in more skillful manuscripts may struggle with inner conflict, dig up secrets, avoid (then face) shames, or heal from hurts. When that happens, backstory becomes dynamic, part of the narrative, and the final catharsis and resolution then achieve a dual effect in which both the outer journey (plot) and inner journey (arc of change) finish together.

However, even that idea of backstory now strikes me as limited. I have come to see that the foreground events of a narrative don’t simply drag backstory along with them. The completion of an inner journey is not a happy byproduct of what happens. What happens occurs entirely because there is, within a character, a need to reconcile what’s in that little red wagon.

Story doesn’t pull the little red wagon, the little red wagon pulls the story. To put it another way, if there was different stuff piled in your protagonist’s red wagon then a different story would occur. Does that sound obvious? I’m sure it does, but to grant backstory its full power means not seeing it as a nice bonus for readers but as the whole reason anything at all is undertaken by, or befalls, your protagonist.

When characters are wholly driven by the shaping stuff of their backstories then we not only see their changes over the length of a novel, we feel it in everything they say and do on every page. That infusion of inner urgency explains why characters with blank or incomplete backstories—think Thomas Pitt or Jack Reacher—can be so vibrant and fascinating. We don’t know what bugs them but, oh man, we feel that electric current in them all the time.

Just as micro-tension (line by line apprehension created in a thousand different ways) pulls us through every page of a novel and prevents us from skimming, the motor of characters’ backstories is what causes each scene and every moment to feel driven. Nothing in a great story just happens. It happens because it must happen if a character is to spill out everything in the red wagon and become whole.

So, how can you use backstory to its full effect? How do you truly make it a driving force rather than a story perk or a byproduct? How can you do that without letting it squat like a lump on the pages of your manuscript? It starts with recognizing that if the plot events you’ve concocted were suddenly declared illegal and could not be written down, then the story—the true story—would inevitably occur anyway.

As to specific techniques, here are some suggestions.

  • Delve into your protagonist’s backstory. What joy is imperishable? What injustice still makes him rage? What happened not to others but to him alone that hurt, delighted or taught him the most? Who were the heroes and monsters of his childhood?
  • Choose any character in the story present. Is this person a hero or a monster to your protagonist? What triggers that association? Make the trigger obvious—to you, but not to your protagonist.
  • In your manuscript pick any interaction (scene) with that the character from the previous step. Now pretend that this character is, off-stage, knocked unconscious by the associated childhood hero or monster. The childhood hero or monster then prances on stage and takes the present day character’s place in the scene. Confronted suddenly with that person from childhood, what does your protagonist do and say?
  • Because of your protagonist’s backstory there is one thing he must do in the present, above and beyond all things. What is it? (Unless he is able to do it, he will never stop suffering.) Now, pick any scene in your manuscript. How in this scene is your protagonist trying to do, even in a small way, the big thing that you wrote down? Make that obvious to you but not to your protagonist.
  • Imagine that your plotline must be abandoned. You can’t use it. In fact, the circumstances that provoke the story never happen. Now, in one or two pages outline what your protagonist nevertheless does to become happy. Break that outline into key events (scenes). Each one of those corresponds with a scene that was originally in the trashed version of your story. Chart out the connections—then use them to make the old scenes sizzle with your protagonist’s newly understood inner need.

There’s a feeling in the fiction writing community that backstory is important but also a drag on the story itself. Most novelists try to minimize its page space. Generally that’s a good idea. The problem is that seeing backstory as a burden causes us to avoid using it invisibly to infuse the story’s every tiny moment with its inescapable urgency. The present is weak if the past does not tremble just below its surface.

To put it another way, the little red wagon is always in the corner of the room even though we rarely see it.

How does your protagonist’s backstory electrify the scene you’re working on right now?

About Donald Maass

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist, The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel and The Career Novelist.