I’ve heard it said that it doesn’t matter if the reader doesn’t know every little piece of a character’s history, but the author had better know. That comment sent me into a bit of a tail-spin—was I a fraud, because I didn’t know absolutely everything about my characters? Was I committing some writerly sin by not knowing all the answers to the questions my beta readers posed me? Newbie writer alert!
As time passed, I began to realise that it was impossible for me to know all this stuff. Maybe if I was writing a novel, or a series, it would be essential and possible. But I’m a fairly prolific short story writer (prolific in relation to the amount of time I have available to write anyway) and new characters and stories are constantly competing for attention. If I sat down to get to know absolutely everything about my characters I’d never get anything done.
I’m starting to see how valuable it is for a beta reader to ask me a question I don’t know the answer to. I no longer feel the need to bluff my way out of it, or get defensive about the relevance of the question. Rather, it helps me clarify what is going on, identifies weaknesses in my plot and characterisation, and prods me to think about things that never occurred to me. It helps me find ways to add dynamics and shading to my story. But in all honesty, I don’t want to know everything about my characters. I want to know what I need to know.
A current WIP has quite an involved history and I’m writing a lot of it into the story, but I envision much cutting when I go back for edits. It’s a rare story where the history is calling for my attention, rather than just an afterthought. That’s not to say that “afterthought” means I think it’s unimportant: I just usually have to think things through, identify where history and back story and foreshadowing are necessary and insert them in the editing stage. The process of writing back story in and thinking it through during the first draft stage is in rather sharp contrast to my usual modus operandi.
My point? Authors are not omniscient, especially not in the first draft stage, but sometimes not even in the final copy stage. And that’s ok. We’re creators but not gods. This beautiful thing we’ve crafted has come from our minds and we’ve toiled over it, cutting off pieces there and inserting bits here. Sometimes things don’t make complete sense, but life rarely makes complete sense. So don’t feel a fraud if you don’t know your characters or back story inside out. And if you do, that’s awesome, but don’t forget the STORY is supreme, not your cool history. The back story serves the STORY.
If in doubt, just say, “It’s supposed to be surreal.”