Backstory Fatigue

Maybe it’s just my own declining attention span (thanks Jim for another reminder of the issue in yesterday’s blog post!), but I’m increasingly growing weary of complicated, anguished backstories in crime shows. I admit I haven’t been reading much in the way of mysteries lately, as I’ve been focusing on research for my latest WIP, but I often turn to TV crime shows (usually of the British variety) to relax. Lately, however, I’ve found my interest waning as the backstories in the latest crop of shows I’ve started (but not finished!) have become increasingly overwrought and intrusive.

I like to watch as characters take shape slowly over many episodes, evolving alongside their cases, rather than having a backstory thrust upon me right from the get go in a way that I find intrusive and (often times) underwhelming. The current show that’s got me peeved the Netflix original series Paranoid. In the first few episodes we get an intriguing murder but also (in my opinion) a rather heavy handed introduction to the backstory for each of the main protagonists – a panic attack ridden investigator, a know-it all junior officer with a lying alcoholic lying mother, and a female investigator who goes from cocky to crumbling wreck after her boyfriend dumps her (she wants children, she’s in her late 30s. etc. etc.). While I will probably persevere with the show, I feel like I’m already experiencing backstory fatigue and I’m only up to episode 3!

The best crime/mystery shows and novels allow the protagonist’s backstory to unfold and inform the story as well as intrigue the reader. I wonder, given the crowded marketplace, whether we’re currently experiencing a bit of ‘backstory overload’ as a means of trying to differentiate the show/story/characters. For me, however, this often feels like a character’s backstory is being foisted upon me right from the start in an effort to either impress or unnerve me (neither of which usually work!). In Broadchurch, I was willing to buy into the multitude of character ‘issues’ because their stories evolved alongside the case and thus felt organic. I’m not sure the same can be said for Paranoid (for me the jury is still out).

So how does this help inform the writing process when it comes to character development and backstory? For me, my current irritation has helped solidify the following advice…

  1. A character’s backstory needs to evolve rather than be rammed down a reader’s throat. That means no huge exposition dumps or digressions too early on and no ‘overloaded’ backstory for a character that feels imposed rather than organic.
  2. The ‘iceberg’ approach works best – let the reader know there is far more beneath the surface of the character than the tip that the reader sees initially. Let the water recede to reveal the extent and depth of the backstory as the plot/story unfolds.
  3. Make sure to consider the multifaceted nature of human beings. Sometimes genre characters can feel too ‘one note’ (the classic depressed, alcoholic loner as a detective for example) but sometimes they can also feel way too overwrought and unnatural…so make sure you feel like you’re creating a real person.
  4. Don’t try too hard to create the world’s most anguished or unusual detective. Again, this seems to be evident in TV shows more so than novels, but after a while, backstories can start to feel like gimmicks rather than genuine human foibles.

So what do you think about when creating your characters’ backstories? How do you approach backstory development? Which TV shows or novels do you think have explored backstory well, and which have given you (like me) a bit of ‘backstory fatigue’?

16 thoughts on “Backstory Fatigue

  1. I don’t prepare the details of a character’s backstory ahead of time, although I do analyze what effects their backstories had on their personalities and foibles.

    The details come out as I write the story, triggered by something that happens in the story, e.g., a smell evokes a tidbit of backstory, or s/he jumps at a particular noise. Often I am surprised by the detail that emerges. It’s magical, but it always seems to make sense for the character. This won’t work for everyone, but it seems to be working for me.

    In my current WIP, the reader will know that her missing child was kidnapped in the first chapter and that she feels guilty about it, but the reader doesn’t learn the (necessary) details until much later, and not in one fell swoop. I dribble the information in, bit by bit, and always triggered by something that is happening in the story itself.

    My rule of thumb for the amount of backstory at any particular time is no more than two sentences, in the hopes that I can condense the necessary information, and yet another hint, in each dribble.

    Backstory can create an additional layer of suspense or mystery in a story. The reader will want to know the whole backstory, usually by the half-point in the story, but, in the meantime, the reader’s curiosity will support the overall narrative drive. If the writer dumps it all in at or near the beginning, s/he’s lost an important element of narrative drive. (IMHO)

    • I love your organic process. Being an outliner I often have a good idea on the whole backstory for my characters but they still manage to surprise me as I write – and yes, a slow reveal is so much more intriguing than a ‘dump it all’ up front approach!

  2. Did you like the unfolding of the backstory in Homeland? During season one you look at these wonky characters and say–Why do they do this stuff? It wasn’t until late that you find She needed pills for a psych condition and He was converted while in prison.
    As Sheryl said, burying the backstory created quite a bit of suspense.

    • I have to admit to never watching Homeland (gulp!) but I really enjoy puzzling out a characters motivation and then discovering the backstory/reason. Too much information too quickly destroys that suspense.

  3. Since I hate plotting, I develop backstory as the need arises, which eliminates a lot of up front dumping, since I don’t know those details yet myself. I have only a rough sketch of my characters’ goals, conflicts, and motivations, which get fleshed out as the story unfolds for me.

  4. I love the iceberg analogy. That makes for the best characters, because you just know something’s going on, but you don’t know what at the moment. The best part is you never have to learn all of it, unlike info dumps that sometimes include the most ridiculous information, right down to the name and breed of the family dog… from childhood!

    I always start with a brief character outline, then I get to know them the way I get to know “real” people. One detail at a time over the course of the story.

  5. I like having SOME backstory. Then I find out more as I go. Keeps it fun for me.

    You also told me why some of the crime dramas are not holding my attention. The only one lately has been Battle Creek. Main character one has been getting backstory in dribs. Main character two, they have made his backstory a mystery that he doesn’t talk about, making it come out even slower.

    Which is the way to do it — one little bite at a time. And only when it makes the story interesting.

    • Battle Creek’s final episode gave us the big reveal. I had to watch it twice. I’m still perplexed as to why the show ended with only one season.

      But to address the topic at hand, I outline my primary characters’ background in great detail, going so far as to define their shoes. Shoes say a lot about a person. I can’t imagine doing it any other way.

      … Of course nothing is ever written in stone.

  6. Back stories on TV are visual of course and can probably say a great deal about the characters. In my case as a thriller writer, I don’t want to get into too much detail about a characters past life; it takes up too much time. I like the iceberg analogy: best way I think.

    • I just wish on some TV shows they didn’t feel the need to overly burden a character with backstory upfront – like the iceberg – let it slowly be revealed not just within the first episode!

  7. The best examples I can give for just the right amount of backstory prior to moving along with a story have happened in television series, the old ones, not today’s series.

    1. Charlies Angles – A little backstory, then before each episode begins, the ending of the backstory, “And I’m Charlie, and these girls work for me.” (para phrasing maybe).

    2. The Incredible Hulk – There was a time where prologues fit at the beginning of a story and this is a great example. Anyone coming in to watch in the middle of a season will understand what’s going on with this character when they sit to watch an episode.

  8. The first TV show that came to my mind is the second season of “Shades of Blue.” We know what we need to know: character corruption, Haley’s concern for her daughter, her abusive husband she just killed and then hid the body, the weak African American detective who’s might still blab on the team but we don’t know that yet. Her dirty cop partner and their relationship still subject to speculation…just what is their relationship…. Anyway, it’s fast paced, and the series unfolds well. It doesn’t need a lot of back story. Love the show!

  9. Doesn’t a guy named Lee Child have a main character with very little backstory? Reacher, I think. (I’ve read all the Reacher books.) Works for him.
    How about a main character with no back story? I’m cogitating on a character with a last name only. No backstory. Just assumptions based on his actions or rumors. If asked about himself, he either ignores the question or gives a smarta__ answer.
    Do the TKZ readers or hosts think that might work?

    • I think you can try anything – but you’d have to be pretty clever about it so readers were intrigued but didn’t feel cheated or confused – every character (like real people) has a backstory – but a character who appears to be a blank slate could still work. It would really come down to the execution:)

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