THE BEAUTY AND THE BEAST OF BACKSTORY by Lauren Kerstein
Backstory is a tricky creature. While we need to know the backstory of our characters in order to write a resonant, enticing story, we don’t always need to include all of the details we’ve created. Balancing backstory and the incorporation of meaningful details provided an interesting challenge for me when I wrote HOME FOR A WHILE (Magination Press/Illo: Natalia Moore/February 2, 2021).
I thought I’d briefly take you through my process and offer some tips around tackling backstory.
Who: Once upon a time, there was a character named Calvin.
Where: When Calvin moved in with his foster mom, Maggie, he had already lived in a lot of houses, but he hadn’t yet found a home.
What: Calvin has lots of big feelings, and experiences negative thoughts. He feels unwanted, anxious, and scared.
How: Calvin struggles to manage his feelings and often chooses strategies that aren’t as adaptive as they could be.
Why: Backstory! Backstory! Backstory!
BEAUTY: In order to write this story, I needed to create a backstory for Calvin. Creating backstory for a character can be exhilarating and inspiring.
BEAST: But deciding what to include and what to omit from the actual story can be a beast of a task! As I ponder which aspects of the backstory to include, and which to leave out, I try to think about the details that move the plot forward and fuel the heart of the story. If the details don’t support the plot and the heart, I don’t directly include them. I may include them in the language I choose or the scenes I create, but I don’t necessarily reveal them as facts. I want to avoid an info-dump as much as possible. This chart illustrates what I mean:
Calvin has lived in a lot of homes because other foster parents didn’t know what to do with his fear and anxiety (which often looked like “behavioral” issues). He had been in the OReilly’s house, The Dornans’, and The Johnsons’ house. Calvin hadn’t been treated well by a father figure in his past and feared men. He is relieved that Maggie is the only parent in the home. Calvin had a mom who loved him. She either passed away, or despite her best intentions, was unable to care for him on her own. There were many positive aspects in his relationship with his mother. Calvin had been taught some strategies in past homes, but really didn’t know how to use them effectively. He longed to find a place that he could call home and settle into more completely. Calvin spends a lot of time in his head, thinking about his past, pondering the present, and worrying about the future. Calvin loves basketball, math, physical activity, and stuffed animals. Calvin can be particularly impulsive when he is escalated. He is slow to warm up, and hesitant to share his feelings. Calvin has trouble falling and staying asleep. He has a few treasured items from his mom in his bag. Calvin has trouble socially since he hasn’t had the chance to really practice social skills in one place for long. New schools are particularly challenging for him both for that reason and because he has to potentially reveal that he is in foster care.
What to include?
The following backstory details fuel the heart of the story AND move the plot forward:
HEART and PLOT
Calvin feeling rejected by former foster parents.
Calvin’s fears from moving around so much.
Calvin’s mom and the items that reminded him of her.
Calvin’s rudimentary knowledge of some emotion regulation strategies.
Calvin’s longing to find a place to call home and subsequent investment in trying strategies with Maggie. (Incorporate things he likes and gravitates toward.)
Once I determined the parts and pieces of information I would include in the story, I let the words flow from my heart and onto the paper. Knowing the backstory and the details you NEED to include will help you craft a meaningful story full of heart!
Remember, it is okay to have LOTS of information in your planning notebooks, grids, etc. that doesn’t end up in the manuscript. As brutal as it feels at times, we must only select the details that strengthen our story. Trust your reader. If you’ve done a terrific job of including details that propel the plot and heart of your story forward, your reader will do the rest. Readers can be superheroes, just like Calvin!
Lauren Kerstein is an author and psychotherapist. She is a Jersey girl at heart who currently lives in Colorado with her husband, their two daughters (who are beautiful inside and out), and their rescue dog. She is represented by Deborah Warren with East/West Literary Agency. Lauren's debut: ROSIE THE DRAGON AND CHARLIE MAKE WAVES (Illustrated by Nate Wragg/Two Lions) splashed into bookstores in 2019. The companion volume, ROSIE THE DRAGON AND CHARLIE SAY GOOD NIGHT (Illustrated by Nate Wragg/Two Lions), snuggled into bookshelves September 1, 2020. HOME FOR A WHILE (Illustrated by Natalia Moore/Magination Press) is expected February 2, 2021. Lauren also writes books in her field. Lauren is one of the founders of #ReVISIONweek, a judge with Rate Your Story, runs a critique business, and is a long-time member of 12x12 and SCBWI. Visit her at www.LaurenKerstein.net, on Twitter @LaurenKerstein, Instagram @LaurenKerstein, or Facebook.
Check out the trailer for ROSIE THE DRAGON AND CHARLIE MAKE WAVES here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-a9oEc6jHtQ
Check the trailer out the trailer for ROSIE THE DRAGON AND CHARLIE SAY GOOD NIGHT here: https://youtu.be/WTzpglfNyHs