Back story, crafting and the omniscient author

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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.”



3 thoughts on “Back story, crafting and the omniscient author

  1. Yep, I agree. Like Woody Allen says: “Whatever works.” I find the same thing with songwriting. I don´t always understand what they´re about. There´s one song of mine that people ask what it means, and I say “I´m not exactly sure, but listen to it and let me know. I´d be interested to know what you think.” 🙂

    I think it´s good to leave space for the reader/listener. It works better if they fill in the gaps. I don´t know who said the author must know, but like the Dude says to Jesus at the bowling alley: “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”

    • Yes! I find there’s this pressure on writers of fiction to know every little nuance of their story and characters though. I love being surprised by the things people read in my stories that I never intended. And I’m very aware that readers love to find significance and symbolism where there probably isn’t any. Half the fun. For me writing happens best when there is a process of discovery, not just a methodical setting down of plot points. That leaves me space to be surprised and have knowledge gaps.

      I’d love to see the reaction you get when you say that to people, I can’t imagine I’d get away with that one!

  2. Songs sometimes write themselves and you just kind of nurture them on their way out, making sure you stay true to the original inspiration. Of course, there´s time to edit and rethink afterwards, but sometimes the original feeling is best. I think the same thing can happen with fiction. The stories can write themselves, but there should be space for the characters to grow, and change, so even if you thought you knew them, they can still surprise you.

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