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Thread: Character developing backstory?

  1. #1
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    Question Character developing backstory?

    I am usually okay with tossing aside backstory that is irrelevant to the main plot, but I seem to be having trouble letting go of a particular one that I think explains the character and his actions very well yet has virtually nothing to do with the plot (except as a motivator for something he did but that could easily be replaced with something else). It's plot-driven thriller with an unreliable narrator (I know, risky, but it's the best fit for the story I'm writing - I usually prefer third person) and the key source of his unreliability is 1) his utter ignorance to what is really going on behind the curtains in the story world, and 2) his tendency to fabricate lies for himself in order to cope with certain things, even if said lie is to the extreme. I guess you could say his personality borders neurotic. The biggest lie he fabricates is the backstory I'm struggling over whether to include or not. It would be the largest indicator of his unreliability, and would act as a large turning point mid novel when another character points out the truth. Basically, he married his college girlfriend, Ariel, and it started out as a very happy marriage. But soon things started to break apart and the marriage ended badly. The MC was so distraught over the failed marriage that he came up with this fabricated lie to convince himself and others that Ariel passed away, sadly ending a happy marriage. He soon begins to believe this lie. I like how the backstory develops his character, but, like I said, it's a plot-driven thriller and it would only develop his character, not the plot. I hear from some sources that character developing backstory is okay, while from others that it should only be plot relevant, so I guess this is more of an opinion question. I feel like if I leave it out it would take a big chunk out of his character, but if I leave it in I'm afraid it would interrupt the plot. The plan would be for him to periodically allude to his wife to the reader, not giving away too many details but implying that she has passed until another character tries to snap him out of it.

  2. #2
    Not a real eskimo Quinn_Inuit's Avatar
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    I know a song about this...

    I think your problem is that the climax of this particular conflict is going to chew up a lot of your wordcount, and I'd be hesitant to include several thousand words in the story that aren't plot-related. Is there any way you can tie this to the plot? I mean, I'm all about character development, but that happens hand-in-hand with the plot. If the most interesting character development is unrelated to the plot, are you sure you're writing the right story?

    Also, normally I wouldn't bring this up, but this is a writing forum so I think it's relevant. Your post is a nearly unreadable wall of text. Please consider being more courteous to your readers and formatting it a bit next time.
    --
    Looking for fun SFF short stories and reviews of other fun short stories? Come to my website! I also have a Twitter feed, on which there are occasionally shenanigans.

  3. #3
    Heckuva good sport frimble3's Avatar
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    I think that revealing that your narrator is not merely 'unreliable' but prone to self-deluding fantasy is relevant to the plot. It's not like he's merely exaggerating, or downplaying his role in the breakup. If he's capable of telling other people, as well as himself, that she's dead, it could make people wonder if the 'thriller' part is actually happening, or if he's making up spies, criminals and plots.
    Sort of an extreme case of 'Walter Mittyism'. Totally relevant to the story, if not the plot.

  4. #4
    Not a real eskimo Quinn_Inuit's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by frimble3 View Post
    I think that revealing that your narrator is not merely 'unreliable' but prone to self-deluding fantasy is relevant to the plot. It's not like he's merely exaggerating, or downplaying his role in the breakup. If he's capable of telling other people, as well as himself, that she's dead, it could make people wonder if the 'thriller' part is actually happening, or if he's making up spies, criminals and plots.
    Sort of an extreme case of 'Walter Mittyism'. Totally relevant to the story, if not the plot.
    Interesting. I hadn't considered that angle. I admit that's a valid way to look at this situation, but the story will have to be carefully written and marketed in that case. I mean, put yourself in the shoes of a reader. If I purchased a book looking for a thriller with spies &c. and about halfway through the book I was given reason to doubt any of it was actually happening, then unless that book were extraordinarily engaging and well-written it would be promptly used to research the shortest distance between my hand and the nearest wall.

    If that's the case, I recommend setting up the doubt about the veracity of the spies &c. right at the very beginning, so potential readers who just read the first page will know what they're getting. Of course, I think that's important for any piece. I spend ridiculous amounts of time crafting my first scene in each story to ensure I'm setting the appropriate reader expectations.
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  5. #5
    Heckuva good sport frimble3's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Quinn_Inuit View Post
    Interesting. I hadn't considered that angle. I admit that's a valid way to look at this situation, but the story will have to be carefully written and marketed in that case. I mean, put yourself in the shoes of a reader. If I purchased a book looking for a thriller with spies &c. and about halfway through the book I was given reason to doubt any of it was actually happening, then unless that book were extraordinarily engaging and well-written it would be promptly used to research the shortest distance between my hand and the nearest wall.

    If that's the case, I recommend setting up the doubt about the veracity of the spies &c. right at the very beginning, so potential readers who just read the first page will know what they're getting. Of course, I think that's important for any piece. I spend ridiculous amounts of time crafting my first scene in each story to ensure I'm setting the appropriate reader expectations.
    True, it's whole different story than the OP was going for, but it is an extreme example of how his backstory could be relevant to the story. Finding out he's telling one, pretty big, lie could make people doubt other stuff.
    (And, BTW, I loved the song you linked to.)

  6. #6
    ....... Harlequin's Avatar
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    Any unreliable narrator book is going to end up defined by that unreliability. This is just how UN books go.

    And also why I love them. Use that aspect, and twist the whole story to your advantage. The best UN stories, imo, are the ones which are (at least ostensibly) about something other than the UN aspect. It's another layer of complexity.

    Just write it, and then then look at streamlining/restructuring at the end.
    Happiness, is just a word to me
    And it might have meant a thing or two
    If I'd known the difference.

  7. #7
    practical experience, FTW
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    My big question is what that backstory truly says about your narrator, and whether that's what you really want.

    Lots of people have marriages that end badly. Most of them that end don't end well. So why didn't your narrator buck up and get over it? Particularly if there were no children involved --- why is the narrator clinging to a divorce (rather common) to such an extent that he makes up a much more traumatic event, the death of a beloved spouse?

    Sorry if I'm sounding a bit forceful on this, but both of these things have happened in my family or are happening at the moment --- a divorce and the death of a young spouse. As bad as a divorce can be, the death is like a million times worse. I just don't get why a narrator would create a worse scenario than the original one. It doesn't ring true for me. It would have to be so excellently written, I just don't think it's the type of thing a plot-driven thriller is going to carry plausibly. There are many simpler way to get across how unreliable the narrator is.

  8. #8
    writer, rider, reader...ex-pat! BethS's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Quill Works View Post
    I like how the backstory develops his character, but, like I said, it's a plot-driven thriller and it would only develop his character, not the plot.
    Who the character is, at heart, should help drive the plot. And in this case, his unrealiability should probably become a major plot point. So yes, if he's living in a self-created delusion, that's important enough to include. But at the right moment in the story and not one word sooner.

  9. #9
    Not a real eskimo Quinn_Inuit's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by frimble3 View Post
    True, it's whole different story than the OP was going for, but it is an extreme example of how his backstory could be relevant to the story. Finding out he's telling one, pretty big, lie could make people doubt other stuff.
    (And, BTW, I loved the song you linked to.)
    It totally works, but I think Harlequin is right that you have to go all in on it, basically letting it take over the story.

    Thanks! I love how they got the Hoff to play himself.
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