How Backstory Creates Story, Part 2: Building Forward

How Backstory Creates Story

How Backstory Creates Story, Part 2: Building Forward

If you’d like to receive my blog in your in-box each week, click here.

Decades ago (way back in the late twentieth century, kids!) in a landmark relationship study, relationship researcher and therapist John Gottman cocreated a “Love Lab” for observing couples that allowed him to predict with greater than 90 percent accuracy whether their marriage would end in divorce.

The lab—still in existence—allows the researchers at the Gottman Institute to watch the ways couples interact within the established dynamics of their relationship, and extrapolate with this astonishing accuracy how they are likely to behave throughout their marriage.

In other words, want to know what people might do in the future? Pay attention to their present and past.

Building Character and Story Forward

Two weeks ago I wrote about digging backward from what you know about your story and characters to develop rich, relevant backstory that helps readers understand your character’s motivations and goals in the main “real time” story—what I call mining backward.

But you can also “build forward” to create fully integrated characters and stories: begin with what you already have established about your character and use it to move the story forward, creating strong, consistent, richly developed characters and making the story feel cohesive and consistent with what you have established about who they are.

Neither of these two ways of developing cohesive, fully developed characters involves trying to invent believable people from scratch—the method many authors use, developing extensive “character bibles” in advance of writing the actual story, as if they are separate elements. That’s a tall and daunting order, primarily because characters don’t exist in a vacuum, but rather in context of the story you’re telling.

In other words, creating cohesive characters whose actions and behaviors feel organic and believable means considering them as an inseparable, intrinsic element of the story.

Let’s examine this idea through the lens of my current Succession obsession, using some of the characterization we discussed in my previous post analyzing the show and how the creators built on what they’d already established about the characters and moved the story cohesively, inevitably forward from that foundation.

Read more: Analyzing other people’s stories is the single most useful way to improve your own storytelling. See more analysis posts here.

WARNING: This article has more aggressive spoilers than a Ford GT.

How characters develop story

In episode 1 of the first season of Succession we saw Connor Roy, the oldest son from Logan Roy’s first marriage, bring his father a simple birthday gift because he thought he would enjoy it: a sourdough starter he’d literally made himself, and which his father dismisses with scornful indifference. By the last season we have seen Connor reminded again and again that neither Logan nor anyone else in his family seems to genuinely love him.

When we have seen Connor Roy marginalized and forgotten time after time throughout the series by the rest of his family, then it makes perfect, cohesive sense that his main relationship is with a woman whose loyalty to him appears to be mostly financial—someone whose love he can reliably buy.

In episode 3 of the final season, when his entire family leaves just before his wedding to this woman after learning of the death of his father, Connor not only doesn’t go with them to their dad—he carries forward with the ceremony despite only a tiny handful of guests still in attendance. What else would he do? We’ve seen him forgotten and abandoned by his family over and over, seen him acknowledge that he has never been loved and has learned not to expect to be—so why wouldn’t he go through with his transactional marriage in the absence of the rest of his family?

After his father dies, how else would Connor react other than making an impulsive, extravagant offer for his father’s house at his wake, buying some scrap of familial belonging that was never freely offered to him? And what else would he do after that other than dispose of every remnant of his father’s life there, getting rid of everything Logan Roy valued in place of his oldest son?

By the series’ end Connor has finally found a way into the family home, but it no longer means anything to him. That’s why he gives away literally nearly all of Logan’s possessions—except for the ones that are true to both Connor’s established character and his circumstances: Logan’s war medals, both a symbol of something his father did treasure and a piece of memorabilia, which was an interest of Connor’s established earlier in the series, when he bought Napoleon’s preserved penis for an extravagant price tag (in one of the most hilarious exchanges of the show).

Connor doesn’t seem to care about any of these possessions he’s acquired from his father anymore—he just wants to have acquired them. And it’s not coincidental that the one item he is careful to keep for himself is the only thing his siblings seem to value as well.

Build the story forward through every character

Every action Connor takes, every behavior and reaction we see across the entire series is a logical, inevitable result of everything viewers have witnessed and learned about him throughout the show, which is why his character feels so real and fully developed, despite that he’s on screen perhaps less than any of the other main characters.

But this cohesive “building forward” technique holds true with every other character in the show, all of whom come to life as fully fleshed people—in a show where they could so easily have been archetypes or clichés. Every one of their actions, behaviors, reactions follow seamlessly, inevitably, from their established history, characteristics, actions, and traits to create a cohesive whole.

By season 4 we know a great deal about Shiv Roy’s character and her relationship with her husband Tom, for instance: He’s in her thrall and she routinely and often cruelly exploits that for her own ends, yet Tom keeps coming back for more—a dynamic echoed in Shiv’s own relationship with her controlling father, whom she both resents and idolizes much as Tom does Shiv.

As a result the storytellers can draw on these well-established dynamics of her character and backstory in determining how Shiv might behave as she faces various situations going forward in the story. It makes logical sense that she decides to divorce Tom after he changes the dynamic of being her faithful lapdog and betrays her in family machinations for the company by siding against her with her father, for instance. Yet when Tom develops more of a backbone, particularly where she is concerned—acting more like her father—of course Shiv finds herself drawn to him again.

After Logan dies, of course Shiv betrays her siblings by voting for billionaire tech bro Lukas Matsson’s takeover of her father’s company, and of course she goes back to Tom when he’s installed as its titular head. Her behavior is entirely cohesive with her backstory and character, which makes her actions inevitable: For four seasons we’ve seen her history of resentment of her brothers Ken and Rome for being preferred as her father’s heirs—how could she be the one to put the crown on their heads? We’ve seen her craving for power, and her established MO for attaining it by using leverage where she has it—often with men, in this case Tom and Lukas. How could she not choose the action that gives her at least a hope of a pathway back to that power she wants?

Youngest son Roman Roy has never felt he was the favored child, but has craved love, approval, and belonging all his life. Because of his upbringing he interprets cruelty and diminution as love, so his draw to the company’s head lawyer, Gerri, an older woman who treats him with both maternal affection and contempt, feels entirely cohesive with his character. So does his susceptibility to his father’s hot-and-cold affection, and Roman’s torn loyalties between his father and his siblings—Rome will take love and belonging wherever it’s offered, even as he acts as if it doesn’t mean anything to him.  

So when Logan is dead, Rome’s siblings pursuing their own interests, and Gerri has turned against him, of course Roman retreats to his distant, unloving mom’s house. She is the only familial figure he has left, and her parental indifference and casual cruelty feel familiar and safe to him. His actions and behavior grow organically from what the storytellers have established for his character and backstory across all four seasons.

How to build forward in your own stories

Both mining backward and building forward are how you create characters who feel fully developed, consistent, and real: by growing them from inside the context of the story so that they feel intrinsic within it, rather than pasting a bunch of behaviors and traits on top of characters you move through the plot like interchangeable game pieces, or trying to install some sort of external story framework for characters developed independently of it.

To create fully orchestrated, believable characters in your own stories, dig deeper than patching in surface-level characteristics. Consider the intrinsic connection between who they’ve been, who they are, and what they do, and build your story forward on that foundation.

Based on the traits, identity, circumstances, and history you have created for your own characters, how might those specific circumstances influence the way they act, react, behave, feel, interact, etc., in each current situation throughout the story?

Remember that character is inseparable from story. Make your story and characters feel not only cohesive but deliciously, satisfyingly inevitable, based on what you have established of their circumstances, personalities, and pasts.

Here’s part one of this pair of posts: “How Backstory Creates Story, Part 1: Mining Backward.”

If you want to explore further both mining backward and building forward, and dive even deeper into backstory—how to uncover which elements are germane to the story, how to weave it in seamlessly, how to handle flashbacks—join me (with Jane Friedman) for my three-part live online master class, “Mastering Backstory.”

You can still sign up for it through end of April and get access to the rest of the live classes and in-class discussions, the recordings, and all the supplemental materials, including detailed workbooks to recap the main concepts and give you exercises to practice them.

This course will help authors master one of the trickiest but most essential aspects of storytelling: how to weave in all the rich backstory that brings characters to life and helps readers understand why they do what they do, without bogging down the forward momentum and losing your reader.

  • Part one offers an extensive exploration of backstory guidelines to make sure yours doesn’t stall the story, the most common backstory traps and how to avoid them, the three main types of backstory, and how to use them effectively–all with lots of specific examples from published and unpublished stories.
  • Part two focuses on flashback–what makes them succeed and all the many ways they can fail. We’ll look at when (and whether) flashback may be the most effective way to bring in backstory, and how to do it without hanging a lantern on the flashback or yanking readers out of the main story.
  • Part three takes a deep dive into how to develop your characters’ backstory, how to determine what backstory is relevant to the main story, and how to vividly, viscerally, effectively show it on the page.

Throughout the course you’ll see hands-on examples with in-class discussion so you learn to identify backstory, whether it’s working and why, and how to weave it seamlessly into your own story.

$75 with live Q&A, video playback, and practice workbooks, April 10, 17, and 24. Register here through April 30 for access to all recordings and class materials.

Mastering Backstory for Novelists master class with Tiffany Yates Martin

And talk to me, authors. How do you build out your characters’ backstory? How do you use it to impact and develop the story?

If you’d like to receive my blog in your in-box each week, click here.

10 Comments. Leave new

  • Christina Anne Hawthorne
    April 11, 2024 1:33 pm

    Oh my gosh, character bibles. I remember how I used to slave away on one—then largely ignore it. I write fantasy and have an extensive “bible” for the world and its magic, but that’s “mostly” static, though not as much as some might believe. To work exclusively from a character bible is to trap a character in their past.

    What changed everything for me, and which I believe speaks to this post—thank you—is an event that happened in late 2016 when I started my first ever sequel. Within the story’s first few paragraphs, the characters slipped into recounting moments from the first book. It happened again and again and my frustration soared.

    Then, my lightbulb moment. Book One was backstory (this sounds so obvious now that I’m laughing). Readers only needed to know what they needed to know when they needed to know it. The story took off.

    I further realized that my revelation also applied to characters in the sense that their past is ever growing, its influence ever changing. Meanwhile, as you say, what matters are their intrinsic actions and reactions in the context of the present moment.

    Reply
    • You are a DAMNED GENIUS, Christina! 😀 I actually talk about series in the course, and this is my approach precisely. Everything that precedes each story in a series is its backstory, and all the same guidelines for salting in backstory apply–most importantly, never losing sight of the “real-time” story and keeping it moving forward.

      And yeah, those character bibles…we used to have acting exercises to create them and they frustrated me to no end. You can’t know who someone is independently of what they do…and not all backstory is directly relevant to the main story. Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

      Reply
  • Very helpful post. (As usual.) Your illustration with examples gives your posts staying power–easy to remember and call on– and makes your posts immediately useful.
    I couldn’t build a character if my next meal depended on it. Fortunately, they lie dormant in my fevered subconscious until cued, then spring onto the page like Athena sprang from the head of Zeus fully clothed. Typically they dress themselves, but if they need a little help, either I get feedback that calls attention to their state of undress, or I feel it myself, and think of something.
    Today in Writer Unboxed, Kathryn Craft provided a post whose substance may be useful along with this.
    As always, many thanks.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the feedback and specifics on what works, Bob–it’s helpful! Very funny about your characters springing forth. Mine seem to start as amorphous little kernels and then I get to “know” them as I write and see what they do, how they act and react. It all tends to coalesce around specific traits and situation to feel cohesive eventually, but I tend to do a lot of throwaway writing to get there. Which is mostly fine by me–it’s my process, I guess. 🙂

      I’ll check out Kathryn’s post–it’s bookmarked to read, but I’m playing catch-up from being away at a conference, so I’m backlogged. Nice to see you here, as always!

      Reply
  • I read your blog every week, but I don’t like to comment unless I feel I have something to contribute.
    I think of my throwaway writing as something I needed to write that nobody else needs to read. It reminds of some learning I did in design. The distance between two lines I had drawn did not match the distance between the number of lines I had to draw to get them right. Have a great week!

    Reply
  • Love this (and whenever you go deep on a show!) For me backstory is ALWAYS parental — is that because I am the daughter of immigrants LOL? I am wondering if you can think of backstory that does not have to do with character’s own parental love/not-love ? Or is that just our (human) psychology?

    Reply
    • Ha! Maybe–and also just because, as psychologist Lloyd DeMause says, “The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken.” 😀 But yes, I think our formative past events can spring from anywhere, and anyone, and anything: a bad breakup, a school bully, a failure (ask me about the scar of blowing my third-grade spelling bee on the easy word “analyze,” for instance).

      Now I’m motivated to analyze something with a backstory trauma unrelated to parents. Stay tuned for a future post! 🙂

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.

Previous Post
Don’t Suffer for Your Art
Next Post
George Michael Had It All Figured Out

How Writers Revise

Menu