Posted by: Kathy Temean | May 6, 2019

MFA For Breakfast Series: How To Grow Your Backstory by Katia Raina

Series: MFA For Breakfast
How To Grow Your Backstory

I just recently recorded my first podcast ever — Cover to Cover Book Beat with Rodger Nichols (the full 14-minute interview is here if you are curious), and one of the most meaningful compliments I got from the host, one that really got my head spinning a little, was when he said that my characters felt very real, like real people with rich backstories that as a reader he could kind of sense. The implied question there was: how did I achieve this? My answer is one that as writers we probably don’t want to hear: I took a long, long time to write this book. I was to embarrassed to admit this to this man on the West Coast that I’d never meant. But I’ll share it here with you guys on Kathy’s blog, as I’ve known her for years, ever since my debut novel was but a baby first draft, in fact. It took me 15 years to write the story. Draft after draft, revision after revision, pass after pass, it was an on and off process of stepping back, then trying again to come closer, to hear the truth clearer. In such a long time, if the story doesn’t fall apart, the characters might just mature and grow into their most real selves.

But, wait up, you might say. Fifteen years? This can’t be the only solution! I don’t have that kind of time! First off, ha, none of us do.
And secondly, no, I don’t think that kind of time is required. I sure hope not, anyway, because I’d like to write a few more stories in my lifetime, thank you very much, ones populated with characters that have backstories that feel rich and real. So, here are a few other strategies for growing our backstories:

1. Side writing

This one was hugely popular among many advisors and students at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults Program. The technique is kind of like journaling, but there is more to it than that. Here are the steps:

— Think of your character (I would start off with the main character). Get a notebook and a pen, sit down somewhere quiet and close your eyes.
— Now, picture your character somewhere in a space where they might feel comfortable. It could be their room or a place where they like to hang out and dream. Try to really zero in on the details. Note: you are not writing anything down yet. You want to wait until you have a really clear picture of your character and the space they are in, a real sense of the person in the moment. Only once you feel like you really have it, you can get ready to write.
— Now, gently, easily, ask your character a question. Please do not start off with anything too deep or intense. Think of it as a conversation, a light one, at first. Keep the stakes low. You are just getting to know them. As a teacher, I actually do this with my students sometimes. I try to just check in with them about things that have nothing to do with grades or personal issues. You might ask your character what their favorite color is and why they like it. You might ask them if they know the meaning of their name and how they feel about it. What did they have for dinner, did they enjoy it, why or why not? Can they describe it for you?
— Your job is not to think about what the character should or would say. It may sound a little crazy, but your job at this point is simply to record, and let your character keep talking. Prompt them with additional light questions, if necessary. And let them to the rest!

2. Side Art and Other Research

Is your character an artist, a musician, an athlete? Do they have a hobby? (Or can you gently suggest one to them and have them try it out for size?) If your character does have a hobby, art or sport, the best way to learn to deepen that character’s backstory is try to practice their craft. Take an art class. Do a jog on a weekend down a track path at your local school. Try to do this not as you, but as your character. What would they draw? What would they notice?

While working on my creative thesis at VCFA, another historical novel — that one is for now still awaiting its publishing fate and may still be a revision or two away from its total truth — I explored the art of my heroine’s father by enrolling in an art class and trying my hand on a few paintings. While getting some precious perspective on what being a visual artist actually entails, I also got deeper into my protagonist, the artist’s daughter, when I painted one small creation from her point of view. I painted her with her two friends, just the backs of their heads as they stood together. When I was finished, it surprised me how “spectral” one of the friends looked. Like a ghost. This added a great and terrible insight to the fate of that character and my protagonist’s pain.

3. Unimportant Scenes/Outtakes

In writing, and rewriting my debut novel, I wrote, then eliminated a great number of scenes. There is one where my protagonist spots her mother’s out of print book on a shelf of a used bookstore. Then there is an impromptu family dance: the protagonist, Sonya, joins her mother and stepdad as they all share a moment of closeness to the sound of the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. In another shopping scene, Sonya visits a “currency” store in Moscow and tries Coca Cola for the first time. These scenes felt important, deep and meaningful to me when I wrote them. But after some time and distance I realized these scenes weren’t essential in propelling the plot, and so, with a mix of regret and satisfaction, I made those cuts. Looking back now, I realize, I couldn’t have skipped the step of writing these scenes, not if I wanted my book to feel complex, rich and real. Now I realize that the discoveries I’d made while writing those outtake scenes ended up permeating the ones that did stay.

So, go ahead. Write extra scenes. Have regular small talks with your characters. Explore their interests, not just with them, but through them, channeling their spirit. Then stand back and watch them grow up and deepen! Just tell them not to take 15 years to do so 😉

Katia, thank you for sharing your time and expertise with this article on How to grow your backstory. I look forward to reading next months article from you.

Talk soon,

Kathy


Responses

  1. Hi Katia and Kathy, that was a lovely post. I’ve read a lot of advice on writing (we all have, I suspect) but the deeper value of “Outtakes” was something I hadn’t seen. I’d never thought of that aspect on my own, either, and it resonated immediately. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thinking further, the actual method of asking your characters questions to reveal more of themselves was also new to me. Sort of small-talking them into a real conversation—I love it!

    Okay, and, since I’m an illustrator, I sort of skimmed through the art section. But, through her painting experiments, Katia saw something that triggered a new insight that added depth to her story—that’s neat, too. Sort of a secret conversation between her hands, eyes and writer’s instinct.

    So, yeah, I should have finished my coffee before my initial post. Thank you and thank Kathy for some wonderful tips today. And happy writing to all.

    Like

  3. Great exercises and insight on deepening our characters. Thanks for sharing this , Katia.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This was a tremendous post. Will share it in several places. THANK YOU for affirming my WIP of over 10 years!! And knowing that you have to write, in order to cut and trim. Loved this.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I like the idea of sitting down with my characters to have a little chat about their backgrounds. Fun!

    Like

  6. Katia, this was a lovely post! Great ideas to deepen characters.

    Like


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