The Importance Of Knowing Your Story’s Backstory, Even If You Don’t Reveal It To The Reader
I’m editing an old favorite story of mine – THE LOST GODS (16 years in the making. It’s gone through about 3 massive overhauls already.) I’m just about ready to send it off to beta readers after this last edit. A quick backstory before I continue: I have a character, Mianda, who’s half-human, half-barbarian. Her barbarian mother ran off with a human, got married, lived in hiding in the woods, gave birth to Mianda, died in childbirth, and the father was chased down by barbarian assassins because humans and barbarians are rival races. So Mianda, as a baby, was thrown into the keep of her human relatives on her father’s side, where she’s been ever since.
This backstory for Mianda has been alive since the story’s conception 16 years ago. It’s always been there. I’ve had no reason to change it. Until…
As of a year ago, I make it mandatory to throw each of my books into a text-to-speech reader (naturalreaders.com is a great one to use. It’s free.) and this is the first time I’ve put The Lost God through it. I don’t know why it finally took this text-to-speech reader to point out flaws in Mianda’s backstory to me – despite me having read this story a dozen times already – but it did. And here are the flaws:
How did the human attract to the barbarian if they live so far away from each other?
If humans and barbarians are rivals, who was the priest who married them?
If Mianda’s father died while she was still a baby, who, then, found Mianda and brought her to his human relations?
How did Mianda’s rescuers know Mianda’s father to know who his relatives were?
Exactly why did the barbarians think it necessary to chase down the father and kill him? Yes, they are rivals, but in my story there is very little hostility between the races, more like a “you leave us alone, we leave you alone” stalemate, which didn’t qualify for barbarians to go into a tyrannical rage and chase down the human father. After all, the humans didn’t chase down the barbarian mother and kill her.
With these realized flaws, I sat down and drew up a brief outline and answered the “who, what, when, where, why, how” for Mianda’s backstory, and ended up changing some details in her backstory so it all made sense. Here is the new outline I drew up:
Phoren (human) worked for the Trading Cycle caravan. Every time he came around to Forever Ice with the caravan, he’d speak with a pretty barbarian woman, Graedenbora. They became closer and closer every time Phoren can around. He, in fact, did not take his three month break between cycles, just so he could see her sooner. They became closer and closer with every trip, their conversations deeper and deeper. When the caravan camped that night to head out in the morning, those two snuck off together. Phoren confessed his love to her, and she him. He asked if she would run away with him. They knew they could not marry because there would be no one to perform the ceremony, as barbarians and humans were rival realms.
They both ran away, living between Malandore and Forever ice in a cabin in the woods, hunting and trapping. She became pregnant and gave birth. Mianda was two years old when Graedenbora and Phoren got sick. Phoren – though weakened with sickness – took Mianda with him to care for her while he trekked toward Malandore in search of medicine. A fast acting sickness, he died before he got there.
Mianda wondered lost and alone until travelers found her. Brought to Malandore, a search was done for her parents, finding her dead father, who was identified by relatives, who were bidden to adopt Mianda because they feared they’d be cursed by the Paragons if they did not.
The reader isn’t going to know half these details. They’re not even going to know the names of her parents. This outline was for me to make sure the details the reader DOES know had a realistic chain of events connecting them. The old outline did not have a realistic chain of events connecting them. The new outline does, which will now change a few details in the story itself as Mianda lives through it.
Are you worried you might have backstory that doesn't make sense?
WHEN IN DOUBT, WRITE IT OUT.
BLOG HIGHLIGHTS: Your reader doesn’t have to know the step-by-step to backstory, but YOU do to make sure the backstory has a realistic chain of events tying all parts together. A lot of ideas told in a very general, vague manner sound like they make sense, but actually writing them out step-by-step you’ll realize just how unrealistic they can be, like what happened to me.