By Eileen Wiedbrauk, Editor-in-Chief.
The Importance of Backstory, Told and Untold.
So much has been happening behind the scenes at World Weaver Press these past few months. We've picked up five new novelists from our 2013 open submission period, and set the table of contents for our upcoming anthology Far Orbit: Speculative Space Adventures. Not to mention all the reading that's been going on for the anthologies Specter Spectacular II: 13 Deadly Tales, Fae, and He Sees You When You're Sleeping: A Christmas Krampus Anthology (all of which are still in the selection process, please be patient with us, and scheduled for 2014 releases).
In the coming weeks we'll be bringing out A Winter's Enchantment, an anthology of three winter novellas by Elise Forier Edie, Amalia Dillin, and Kristina Wojtaszek -- and yes, that will include a new Fate of the Gods story!
Speaking of Fate of the Gods, not only is the second novel in the trilogy newly out this month, but we're giving away books -- honest to god, tangible, paperback books! -- potentially lots of books: see previous post.
As I've been reading submissions this summer as well as editing manuscripts of upcoming titles, I keep finding myself contemplating the importance of backstory. Not the chapter one info dump of backstory, or the chapter two info dump a la every Babysitters Club book ever, or the backstory dump poorly disguised by the word "prologue." No, not those things, although I see them in the slush pile all the time. But rather I've been contemplating the importance that every character have a backstory, and that by having a backstory that is known to the writer, that it shapes the character, even if the writer doesn't ever tell it to the reader.
And what should come out just as I'm contemplating all of this but the Doctor Who backstory webisode "The Night of the Doctor." A video which highlights the fact that for the past eight years the creators of Doctor Who haven't divulged much, if any, of the main character's backstory (that period of time between Eight and Nine) by giving us a nugget of it now.
If you're not a Who fan, don't worry, I'll explain. If you are a fan, watch it now so that you can't accuse me of giving spoilers. Go ahead. I can wait.
What you need to understand about Doctor Who for the purposes of this essay is that it's a British SF TV show that started in 1963. The main character, an alien known as "The Doctor" periodically dies and is regenerated as a new Doctor played by a new actor. The show ran more or less continuously until the 80s when, after seven Doctors, it went off the air. It popped back up for a made-for-TV movie in the 90s featuring an Eighth Doctor, then went away until 2005 when the show "rebooted." Since the reboot, the show has had seven seasons and three new Doctors with the Eleventh Doctor slated to regenerate into the Twelfth by the end of 2013. Oh and there's this giant 50th anniversary celebration fever taking over the internet. Just FYI.
Now, back to what this has to do with backstory. When the series rebooted in 2005, there were of course longtime fans who were going to jump on board just because that's what fans do. But at the same time the creators had an obvious problem to overcome to achieve success: there was an entire generation (or two) of TV watchers out there for whom Doctor Who invoked an honest "who?" reaction. So they made the fantastic decision to treat it like a new series, foregoing backstory and back-connections in favor of leaping into the plot.
Without prologue, or preamble, or sloppy regeneration, they caught the interest of new watchers by treating the plot as if the show was brand new ... even if the premise was decades old. And as such, they didn't overburden us with backstory. In the TV movie, we saw Seven regenerate into Eight, but to launch the TV show, Nine just pops up. We get hints that he's newly regenerated (and apparently pleased that he doesn't have gills this time), but how he got to be that way? why he regenerated? what killed him? what he was doing at the time? who was he with? Not important. Let's keep things moving forward.
It's a lesson that all writers learn sooner or later: the start of a story is no place to discuss what happened before. Let's keep things moving forward. Instead we tease out droplets of backstory, dishing them up when it's relevant to the forward moving plot. But that's not to say that Nine leaped onto the screen without a backstory, nor should a novelist let their characters (or their villains) enter tabula rasa either.
Eight was a foppish neo-Victorian type, a good man, not particularly ruthless or prone to violence. Nine appears with the air of an action hero -- black leather jacket, close cropped hair, and a don't mess with me attitude. Definitely not the sort of man to carry an umbrella or wear a vegetable as an accessory. He sees a Dalek, and his reaction is not to outwit it with a horrendously complicated yet simple plan as most Doctors seem to do, he (1) runs for his life (2) taunts it (3) picks up a giant gun and tries to shoot it. Something's happened to this Doctor. Something to make him into the man who would pick up a gun to solve his problems. Over the following seasons, we get to watch him heal, but we've never gotten the chance to watch what broke him.*
Since 2005 Doctor Who has dropped hints, hints, hints, about something called the Time War. We learn, eventually, that the Doctor is the last Time Lord. Why? Because he was the one who locked away all the other Time Lords (and a good portion of the Daleks) into ... well let's just simplify and say they're frozen in time and space and no longer on the brink of destroying the universe. But we've never gotten to see the Time War. It's all backstory. We understood that it was the something that made the Ninth Doctor into who he was but we never got details. We didn't need them. Now with the webisode, we're getting more details and a promise of even more backstory to be revealed in coming episodes. More than that, it's suggested that it's not the horrors of war that caused the change in the Doctor's character, but his own choices. These are powerful, powerful storytelling/storyshaping tools and yet they're still just hinting! See? See what you can do by knowing the backstory yet using a light hand to feather it into the narrative?
Moreover, we didn't need to see that backstory. At least not when the reboot started. Eight years later we're all salivating over it, but that's not the point. The writer needed that backstory to inform the character and the forward moving plot, but the reader just needed the essence of it to be conveyed through the character.
This is something I've been discussing with writers in edits recently. We'll come to a secondary character who's really important to the plot, but the character falls flat. He's not developed. He doesn't feel like he has a backstory, a reason for doing the things he does except that it's convenient to the plot. I by no means want to read his backstory spelled out on the page, but it's absolutely something the author has to know. Not only does it inform the character but it bleeds through his actions and reactions, his mannerisms and speech.
Even when we knew nothing of the Time War, we knew that it was the thing that broke the Doctor. We knew that he made choices he wasn't proud of and didn't want to speak of. That the writers knew at least something of that backstory was absolutely essential to the story, even if the audience never heard a whisper of it
Just because it's not on the page doesn't mean it doesn't sneak onto the page. And it's the sneaking bits that make it all the more real for the reader.
*More recognition of growth and/or the state of the Ninth Doctor at the start of 2005: When the Tenth Doctor leaves the Human Doctor with Rose Tyler, he tells Rose that the Human Doctor is born of war, still angry the way the Doctor was when he first met Rose.
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