Our first page reviews often bring up the issue of backstory and how to incorporate it successfully (and judiciously) into a novel.
In mysteries and thrillers we often have protagonists with a military or law enforcement background and, given that many of our readers will have similar backgrounds, we need to get the details right. As writers we have an obligation to do our research and try and paint as accurate a picture as possible. This can be a challenge for someone like me who has never been in the armed forces, trained in law enforcement, or (thankfully) had any exposure to war or its aftermath. I have to rely solely on research and my imagination.
So far in my novels, I’ve focused primarily on the years prior to and during the First World War and have the advantage of being able to access a huge array of first hand accounts, books, film footage and audio recordings dealing with the horrors associated with trench warfare. There are, however, only a minute number of veterans still alive from this war which means I cannot directly speak to them about their experiences as part of my research. In some ways though, this also makes my job a little easier, as there aren’t going to be many World War One veterans alive to challenge the experiences as I present them.
For more recent theatres of conflict, authors need to be ever vigilant regarding their research as there are many more veterans alive who will demand we get the details correct (and who will complain if we fail to do them justice). When it comes to developing a character with a recent military backstory, authors need to also be aware of the sensitivities involved – whether you’re dealing with a character who served in Afghanistan, a character involved in one side or the other during the Northern Ireland Troubles, or, perhaps, a CIA operative who had exposure to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict…whatever the backstory is you have to get it right.
As we’ve also discussed in our first page reviews, when presenting a character’s backstory you also have to be careful not to slow down the narrative pace of the book. All the details you have researched cannot be presented in huge, long-winded chunks, or your readers’ eyes will glaze over.
Here are a few tips when it comes to developing and presenting a compelling backstory:
When developing the backstory (particularly a military or law enforcement one):
- Do your research thoroughly. I cannot emphasize this too much. Read books. Talk to people currently in the field or veterans who have experienced the same conflict/trauma that your character has experienced.
- Make sure you understand the impact their training and experiences have had on their characters.
- Know how they would react in a certain situation (it would, for instance be unlikely that an ex-Marine would turn tail and run when confronted with a mugger – not unless you have created an appropriate backstory that would make this behavior entirely believable).
When presenting the details of your protagonist’s backstory, remember:
- Show only the tip of the iceberg at the start (even though you know everything, don’t foist it all on the reader at once)
- Use key, tantalizing, references at first to get the reader intrigued (e.g. rather than providing a long-winded paragraph listing all the protagonist’s experiences during the civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, you could just say: “After what happened in Bosnia, he wasn’t sure who to trust any more”…that way the reader wants to know what happened as it impacts the story).
- Make sure the backstory is relevant to the main story you are telling. There’s no point having an elaborate backstory if none of the elements come into play in the main story. The backstory needs to have a direct impact on how your character thinks, feels and acts (and in a way that rings true and is compelling to the reader).
- Use action and dialogue to draw out the backstory rather than narrative exposition. This will keep the pace and tension going.
So do you tend to have protagonists with a military or law enforcement background in your stories? If so, how do you go about researching this and what pitfalls do you try to avoid when presenting your character’s backstory?