Reviews, Views and Adventures in Content Creation

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Backstory Icebergs

Backstories, for those unfamiliar with the term, are the histories of individual characters - the life stories that made them who they are "today," but aren't necessarily included in the finished novel. A number of the supporting characters in my Alexander books have fairly dark backstories.

Backstories exist so that the writer can  understand and develop believable character motivation. Hemingway called it the Iceberg Theory: The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. If the writer does his job well enough, he said, the reader will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. 

Even though my books are humorous in nature, the stories behind certain characters are serious.

I've hinted at some: Colin, introduced in Own the Scrawny, is a new student at Alexander's school; though we never quite learn the details, we know that bullying at his old school created the troubled boy Alexander meets in the school library, and in fact drove him to switch schools. We (and Alexander) learn a bit more of his past in My Epic Life, but only enough to gain a hint of the gravity of the situation, and motivate important action in the novel.

Alexander's good friend, Darrell, is in a wheelchair. The reader learns only the most general outline of the accident that put him there: Darrell was struck by a drunk driver. Of all the backstories, his is probably one of the most developed. I know, fairly extensively, how the accident happened, what became of the driver, and Darrell's struggle to survive in the months after. I'm also familiar with his lingering anger about the accident.

In the novels, Darrell is Alexander's voice of reason. While Alexander's other friends tolerate his eccentricities, Darrell confronts him. He's a loyal friend, but he directly challenges Alexander when his behavior seems immature. Darrell's more adult view of the world isn't surprising, given the trauma he's experienced.

If all of this seems pretty heavy for these books, remember that there's a close relationship between comedy and tragedy. Tending to that relationship, and thinking of characters as real people with histories, is the difference between a story that just makes people laugh, and one that also makes them care.

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