You know the rules: keep backstory to a minimum.
And that’s a good rule. I really don’t need to know that Jack Bauer was beat up in the 2nd grade by the 4th grade girl he had a crush on. I just need to know the guy’s got issues. The writers of 24 did (insert magic here) to make Jack a believable protagonist. I know it’s there, I just can’t say where.
That’s what hidden backstory is: the magic that makes it real.
This link has been floating around on facebook. It’s the backstory behind Toy Story. The theory (unconfirmed by the writers) is that Andy’s mom is the little girl from Toy Story 2 who gave up Jessie. The writer of the blog does a great job of piecing together his facts. Andy’s hat, the flashback from TS2, etc. It all fits.
Now, it’s unlikely that any of us watched Toy Story 2 and managed to piece all that together (unless you really, really need to get a girlfriend). That backstory was never, ever given to us in any of the Toy Story movies, not even in snippets.
But did the Pixar writers plan all that backstory? My guess is “yes.”
So why didn’t they clue us in on their genius? The same reason a magician doesn’t tell you how a trick was done. Never give up the secret to your magic.
“But Ron,” you quip, complain, or object, “that’s different. Stories should be told. Nothing left out.”
Why? Would TS1, 2, or 3 have been any better had you known that secret? I don’t think so. But a part of you knew the story was much deeper than what you could see, much like the old iceberg theory–most of it is below the surface.
So this little blog post about Andy’s mom, which may not even be true, but I suspect it is, got me thinking. Where’s my 80% of the iceberg? Have I done enough to create this character and this story world so that I am convinced it could be real? Because if I’m not convinced, I have no right to expect a reader in Santa Fe to be convinced.
Mind you, you or I probably don’t have to actually write one-thousand pages of backstory for a two-hundred page novel, but we can create it in our heads. Just write down the critical points. Think of it as a slide show (a real one, where your dad set up a screen and pulled out your most embarrassing moments for all the neighbors).
Use the example in the Toy Story blog. The little girl gave up her doll. Man…how could I tie that in to add depth. Hey, let’s set the timetable so that the little girl is Andy’s mom\grandmother\aunt…whatever works best. The key is to tie your characters together.
Maybe your hero, like Jack Bauer (I made that up btw), was beaten up by his crush in elementary school. What would be a wonderful coincidence? What if your hero, a cop, answers a domestic dispute call and finds she still hasn’t changed after all these years. Sounds like a romance in the making to me. Okay, it’s bad, but you get the picture.
Create your hidden backstory like the magician creates his tricks. He knows all the secrets before the final illusion is made public. Do the same with your characters and watch the magic happen!