Thursday, 27 August 2009

THE HEROINE'S BACKSTORY--HOW MUCH DO I TELL?

What has made our heroine into the person she became for the purposes of our story? What occurrences in her life have shaped her personality? And how do we decide on the balance between what we, as the writer know about our heroine vs. what the reader needs to know?

Obviously, we don’t have room to tell the reader all that we, the writer must know about her. Nor would the reader be as enthralled with that deluge of information as we are. It’s not necessary for the reader to know every single thing—yet, as writers, one of the hardest parts of creating believable characters is giving them a past, and knowing how much of that history we need to go into.

In my novel, Fire Eyes, one thing we learn about the heroine, Jessica, is that she married young. She thought she was marrying for love, but as it turned out, she grew to understand that she was not in love with Billy, nor he with her—at least, not in the way she had always dreamed of. This is a huge issue with her after Billy dies. She tells Kaed, “The next time I marry, it will be for love.” This shows how much it means to her, because her existence as a single mother is not easy, and the threat of Fallon is still there.

There are many reasons for her to hold onto that dream so tenaciously, but I didn’t have room to talk about in the novel. Her life before Billy was not easy, and marrying Billy was just the ‘icing on the cake.’ But rather than me tell you about Jessica, how about letting her describe her background to you?

My name was Jessica Lea Beckley. That was before I married Billy Monroe, when I was only seventeen. I thought I was in love with Billy. He was handsome in his own way. I was glad when he started courting me, because he was the only boy my father seemed to like. Once he started coming around, it seemed like word got out we were ‘a couple’—and the other boys quit coming by.

That suited Pa just fine though. I was the only girl in a family of boys—four older brothers and one younger. My ma died when Mitch was born, and somehow, Pa always seemed to blame him for it. I had to come between them many, many times. Pa was always heavy-handed. Mitch was determined to prove to Pa that he was worthy. He ran off when he was sixteen. Said he wanted to be a marshal. We never heard from him again. I missed Mitch more than my other brothers. He was always special to me. But Mitch is dead now, killed by Andrew Fallon’s men.

They killed my husband, Billy, too. I did what I could to save him, but he was just hurt too bad. Most of what I did was just making him comfortable as he slipped away. It took him two long days. Even though I didn’t love him, I was sorry for not being able to save him. Something really sad was this. Billy never wanted to be touched—he wanted to do all the touching—what little of it there was between us. How I would yearn for him to just hold me sometimes! But it wasn’t in him. Still, just before he died, he opened his eyes a little and said, “Jessica, would you please just hold my hand awhile?” Even then, I knew I couldn’t touch him the way I wanted to—just pull him close and hold him. I took his hand in mine, and he smiled. It wasn’t long after that, he passed.

Somebody had to bury him, and there was no one but me to do it. Me, two months gone with our baby. But I lost it, too, when I buried Billy. Nearly died myself, from bleeding, but my good friend Rita, and her husband, Wayne, took me in and cared for me.

In an odd twist of fate, after Rita had her baby girl, she was bitten by a copperhead a few weeks later. Wayne waited too long to come for help, and Rita passed. IF Wayne had come sooner, I might have saved her. I think he knew it, too. Not long after that, he asked me to marry him. It made sense, me with no husband, him with no wife and trying to care for little Lexi. But I didn’t love him, and he didn’t love me. I had to keep true to my promise I made myself, to only marry for love. A few days later, he showed up at my door with the baby, asking me to take her. I felt sorry for Wayne, but I was glad to see him go. Gladder, still, that he left me precious Lexi.

It was good to leave home. Sometimes I think my pa just wanted me there to cook and clean. I wanted my independence, and maybe I saw Billy as my ticket out of there. I’ve never been back, even though it’s less than a day’s ride from here. Pa was a hard man to deal with, and I was glad to see my older brothers marry and leave, one by one, too.

I’ve always felt bad about not saving Rita and Billy. I’m a healer. Had to learn that, being raised as I was with all those boys. They were always getting hurt somehow. I believe things happen for a reason, though. If I hadn’t gone through those hard years of growing up where I did, I wouldn’t have been able to save Kaed Turner when Standing Bear dumped him on my porch. He was hurt worse than Billy, but he had more to live for. I wasn’t enough for Billy, but to Kaed, I was everything.

Remember when I said that I wouldn’t marry again except for love? Kaed’s the best man I’ve ever known. When I look at him, I see love in his eyes—for me—every time. But more than just the love, I see understanding. And that’s just as important, I’ve learned, because, love can be many things to many people. Kaedon Turner knows my soul as well as my heart. We’ve both suffered loss and despair. But now, we have each other. And when he says, “It’ll come out all right,” I know it’s true.


And now, you know what I knew when I created Jessica Monroe Turner. A lot goes into making up a heroine's personality--a lot that the writer must know about her. This knowledge makes the heroine a well-rounded person to the reader, although you, as the writer, might not be able to include everything. Still, snippets of conversation and insights will provide for a deeper look into the heroine's character. What about your heroines? How did you manage to convey their backstory to the reader?

Cheryl

24 comments:

Lindsay Townsend said...

Fascinating blog on a vital topic, Cheryl! Backstory is so important, and how much is also critical. You explain it so well and even more, SHOW it in your 'Fire Eyes.'

Your Jessica is a very engaging heroine, very loveable.

Thank you!

Cheryl said...

Thanks,Lindsay,

I'm so glad you liked Jessica. There was so much about her that I couldn't tell about in the book itself. Thanks for commenting, Lindsay!
Cheryl

LK Hunsaker said...

Hi Cheryl!

I love this look into the creation of Jessica. Most of it I got through the story but of course every detail can't be included.

I'll often include backstory using dialogue, having one character who knows something about another explain to a character who doesn't already know. This way, it moves the story along and also works in the history.

Having a character react to something and then explaining why she reacted as she did works, also.

Great post!

Cheryl said...

Hi Loraine!

I like the gambit of using other characters to convey something about the heroine (or the hero) that we didn't know. Not only does it show us something about the hero or heroine, but it also gives us a bit of insight into the character who's talking. We are able to see the depth of their understanding and it also tells us how long they've known the h/h and what their relationship is with them.

Glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks for stopping by!
Cheryl

Maggie Toussaint said...

I love how you handled this post. The snip from your Fire Eyes heroine felt so real, as if she was standing in the room talking to me. You have such a way with words, Cheryl.

Cheryl said...

Hi Maggie!
Thank you so much! I was trying for that, and I'm glad it came through. It dawned on me as I was writing that post, when Jessica says that Mitch wanted to prove he was worthy, that was also what she was feeling, too. So declaring to herself that she was not marrying again except for love, was a huge step for her. Because in a way, she felt unworthy, too, up until that moment. I'm so glad you liked the post--I'm always a bit leery when I try something new like that. LOL
Cheryl

Rebecca J Vickery said...

Hi Cheryl,

Jessica is as real to you as my heroines are to me. Loved this special look at her.

As for conveying bits about my heroines to the readers, I try to do it through dialogue, secondary characters, and attitude. To me a person's attitude and the way they react to the dificult situations we place them in will often give a very sincere look into both background and values.

I still have to fight telling vs. showing but I think we all do at times. LOL

Cheryl said...

Hi Rebecca,

Yes, they are very real, aren't they? That's the key, I think, to having a great book--your characters must be real. Attitude is a very good way of getting personality across--especially in a difficult situation, as you say! I agree, I think everyone has to fight telling vs. showing, but no matter what, there must be SOME telling in the story! I try to let the telling be done by a character through dialogue, as you were talking about, rather than through the narrator's eyes.

Thanks for coming over and leaving a comment!
Cheryl

Celia Yeary said...

CHERYL--This essay about Jessica is wonderful--it was a mini-novel, actually-her story.
Backstory? it's difficult, isn't it? At least for me. I have learned, though some of the ways to sneak in backstory. If we have a character and he/she has no backstory, then how can they be real to us? I would imagine this is one of the most difficult things to teach your students. I know from experience that the tendency is to write a prologue or insert a monologue which is actually an omniscient viewpoint--the author just telling and telling.
Again--you've nailed it. Celia

Cheryl said...

Hi Celia,

YES! I think backstory is one of the hardest things to teach. Too much is boring, and too little is just not enough to make the character realistic. And that's the key--making the characters into real people. You're right--if we don't know and care about them, how can we expect our readers to? Thanks so much for the kind words. I appreciate them!
Cheryl

Kathleen O said...

Knowing more about the charachters we are reading about is so important to the story. It keeps the reader interested and we want to find out as much as we can about what makes the "heroine" tick..
Great job Cheryl..

Linda Banche said...

Hi Cheryl, beautiful post. And what a woman.

Cheryl said...

Hi Kathleen,

You are so right. We need to know what makes them tick! How boring if they were all cut from the same cookie cutter!

Thanks for commenting, Kathleen!
Cheryl

Cheryl said...

HEY LINDA!

I'm so glad you enjoyed it. And thanks for the compliment to Jessica--she is very strong, but needed that happiness in her life so badly after everything that had happened before!

Cheryl

Savanna Kougar said...

Hi Cheryl, intense and lovely-written portrait of your heroine, Jessica.

As far as back story, I do my best to make it part of the story through what has already been said ~ dialogue, other characters, her actions and feelings.
It's a balancing act often, between the action and why she is the woman she is.

Cheryl said...

Hi Savanna!

Thank you! I appreciate that!

Yes, I'm the same way, and I do see it as a balancing act of a sort. As in Jessica's case, it would be so easy for her to have turned bitter. But she is still holding on, and that's one of the things I love about her. She is waiting for love to come to her, and it does! Sometimes it's hard to make our heroines seem strong in the face of adversity rather than unrealistically optimistic, like Pollyanna. LOL Thanks so much for commenting, Savanna!
Cheryl

EA said...

Good topic. I know when I first started writing I went on and on and on and on and.... I think I lost my readers after the first two pages.

Cheryl said...

HI EVIE!

LOL I REMEMBER THOSE DAYS, TOO!!! MG, I would tell EVERYTHING about EVERYONE, not realizing that NO ONE CARED!!! LOLLOL That's one of the hardest things to convince people of when they start writing though--in my novel writing classes, they all want to make sure the reader knows everything about the people they created. One lady, after a year of working on her novel and actually cutting out the first 40 pages of it (all backstory) was amazed to realize that her story had "changed"--it was actually about the 2 people she had wanted to write about in the very beginning! LOL
Thanks for commenting!
Cheryl

Keena Kincaid said...

A perfect topic for our blog series on heroines. Backstory is vital to us the writer, but the reader must never, ever see it. :-)

What to do know the best part of this? I knew all this about Jessica. Even though you didn't share 90 percent of what you wrote in the backstory, I knew it. You conveyed it so well throughout the story.

Cheryl said...

KEENA!!!

WOW, thanks so much! What a compliment! I'm glad it came through and you knew it from what I'd written. I think backstory is one of the hardest things to get right and make it work.

Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Keena!
Cheryl

Jane Richardson, writer said...

Great post, Cheryl. Of course the writer needs to know the backstory, it's what makes the characters who they are at the time of writing them. Conveying it is a skill, yes, but one it's essential to aquire. (along with an awful lot of other skills, lol.) Writers sometimes over-estimate just how much a reader needs (or wants!) to know, plus if there's a piece of backstory that's absolutely vital, totally necessary and 100% essential to the plot, then it's worth considering whether the story has actually started in the right place....!;-)

Jane x

Cheryl said...

Hi Jane!

It continually amazes me when I get a new class of students, how many of them have no backstory in mind for their characters. I have had a few over the years who will even say, "Well, I had him named Howard (the protagonist) but then my wife said she liked (insert 'hot' name here) better." LOL Or they don't CARE what the characters names are. Many of them have an idea that would care a short story, but would never be intricate or strong enough to carry a full length novel. "I've written the first 10 pages, but now I don't know where to go with it." Backstory must be thought out with some care and as you said, the author MUST know it! I so agree about the backstory being important in helping the author decide where the story itself needs to begin. It can make all the difference, can't it?

Thanks for commenting, Jane!
Cheryl

StephB said...

Cheryl, a great post on the heroine and backstory. I liked your look into Jessica. She was a great heroine and embodied everything I would expect a heroine to have. I agree - can't reveal too much about the backstory, but it important to know some past history - that which is revalant to the current story. Smiles, Steph

Cheryl said...

Hi Steph!

So glad you enjoyed my little glimpse into Jessica's life. She had a really hard life and deserves some happiness, doesn't she? Yes, it's very important, that backstory. In fact, after I wrote this, I thought maybe I should teach a class on it, so that's what I'm going to be doing with my students in both classes this weekend.

Thanks so much for commenting!
Cheryl