I hold to the belief that each book is different and I must adapt, not the other way around. Time has reinforced that belief as it applies to all aspects of drafting and revising. For instance, and most important, the main character’s backstory. I’m going to look at three heroines today, the third of which is the one who prompted this blog post.
The first is Riparia from the Kovenlore Chronicles. Her first book was written in 2016, the year after I’d spent extensive time studying aspects of writing like structure and voice. Her written backstory amounted to, maybe, 3K words in a narrative shorthand.
There really wasn’t a lot to cover. Her past amounted to key events when she was 6, 7, and then at 20. After that, she disappeared into obscurity until Trust in the Forgotten, Book1, when she was jerked out of it in her early 30s. Over the course of the first 3.5 books I dole out tidbits about those events.
Except, that wasn’t all of it. A lot happened that was significant before her 6th year, but those memories were blocked and surface as flashbacks in Buried Remembrances, Book4 (the only time I’ve ever used flashbacks). Too, I further explored her past in the prequel, Exhuming Truths, which she’s barely in.
Fast forward to 2019 and Protecting the Pneuma Key, a Pannulus novel. In some ways, Zephtasha’s life played out in a similar fashion where certain key events constituted what was important. Her childhood was a living hell of beatings where she was force-fed potions.
As bad as all that was, it was encapsulated in a key event that occurred at age 15 and led to her running away from home that night. That I did write in relative detail. After that, the next notable event is her trial five years before the novel begins. What’s important are her reactions to both those events and are best expressed in her life situation as the novel opens.
Her backstory, besides notes, amounted to about 4.3K words. There were also other details that came to light when outlining and later when drafting. I spent a lot more time on her present day life, though, which was complicated despite her frustrated efforts to make it simple.
Pneuma Key was the first completed novel where I placed far more stress on characters and relationships, though it’s also an excellent mystery. Too, unlike 6 of the 7 novels in the Kovenlore Chronicles, its lack of multiple POV gives it a more intimate feel, as does limiting locations.
And then Talma Loyal happened.
Case of the Deadly Stroll is much like Pneuma Key, from which it’s a spin-off, in that it’s a fantastic mystery. It was different because what was critical was how Talma came to be Talma. Rather than a singular event, or even a few, what was important was a slow evolution.
That required viewing character backstory in a different way. As in, more backstory. A lot more. When I began, I had no idea just how true that would turn out to be.
More important than the major events in her life were her numerous reactions to them and the pattern that formed. Her insecurities and fears led her down a path that became a downward spiral (hitting rock bottom in Pneuma Key).
Sitting on my couch in 2020 in the middle of the pandemic, my computer in for repair, I had an overabundance of time and used it to write the story before the novel. I’ve also continued to edit it, its revelations deepening the novel and vice versa.
That’s led to a backstory story that’s over 60K. It isn’t, though, truly a story. It chronicles key portions of her life in great depth, but it wouldn’t hold up as a novel. Because I wanted to know exactly how she got from A to Z, I allowed all the ruminating she wanted. That led to more fully grasping her fervent avoidance.
The backstory isn’t her full story. Instead, it focuses on ages 12, 18, 24, 28, and 29, with the later ages encompassing multiple chapters. Her internals also serve to fill-in the gaps.
I say that it isn’t a viable novel, which is true, but there are portions that make me wish it was sometimes (no, it never will be). The wrong conclusions she draws at a young age that initiate the downward spiral are heartbreaking, as is the first visit to a potion den at twenty-one. Writing them, I wanted to beg her not to make those choices.
In many ways, her small role in Pneuma Key at age twenty-eight is a part of the backstory, though not covered in it. On the other hand, there are critical events that transpire “off screen.” Those are included. One is horrific, but it’s also a spoiler.
The day after, though, alters her life’s course…
In a terrible dream, there was forced consciousness. There was internal screaming that allowed for the shrieks to go on forever in a painful experience with no purpose. At the edge of madness there was a poke and darkness.
Through it all, though, there were the swirling eyes and voice. There were words that repeated and refused to fade.
Sever, sever, sever…
Sleep gave way to a gasp, then immediate flailing and a shriek. “My legs, my legs, my legs!”
Except, they were still there. There’d been such certainty, though. Had the nightmare that included the scene in the laboratory been a real nightmare and not true? Maybe, too, the scene in the library wasn’t real? If only so much more was a falsehood.
It was difficult to sort it all when thoughts and memories were becoming a jumble. Memories taken for granted had developed holes, some more than holes. Gaps, big gaps.