How Much Back Story Do You Want?

Over Christmas, I broke down and decided to try the second part of Sai Yuki in manga form.  As I’ve mentioned before, Sai Yuki (despite its flaws) is one of my favorite anime.  I like the manga, too, but –  as is not uncommon in this form –  the two storylines diverge.

Back Story

Back Story

The second part of Sai Yuki is called Sai Yuki: Reload.  I was turned off  by the anime immediately.  None of the reviews I read encouraged me to make the investment in time to see if it improved.  But, occasionally, I’d wistfully pick up a DVD and read the back…  Eventually, I noticed that they were now re-telling the tale that had been the second part of the manga…

So what the heck did the manga of Sai Yuki: Reload include?

I decided to give it a try.  Within two issues, I realized that I was going to like this story.  One thing I had loved about Sai Yuki was that the characters had rich back stories… both in their current lives and in a shared incarnation 500 years in the past.  (This last is touched on more in the anime than the manga – and I still want the rest of that story!)  Sai Yuki: Reload continued to move the present day storyline forward while delving into past events – including a tie between the beloved teacher of one of the main characters and the sinister Dr. Ni.

I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m enjoying the twists.

Anyhow, all of this got Jim and me talking about how much we both enjoy a degree of back story.  Done well, it adds so much to the characters and to the story at large.  My current audio book binge is revisiting Rex Stout’s stories about Nero Wolfe.  Most of the time those tales are simply good detective stories but, occasionally, as in Over My Dead Body and The Black Mountain, you learn about Nero Wolfe’s past…

That past changes him from a contrived eccentric, clearly indebted to Mycroft Holmes (Sherlock Holmes’ smarter brother), to a rich and vivid character in his own right.  As much as I like Agatha Christie, I wish she’d done something like that with Miss Marple.  In Miss Marple’s case, except for an occasional superficial reference, Jane Marple is a woman without a past, always old, always curiously wise.

But there can be too much back story.  I just finished a very long novel in which no character, no matter how minor, is without a long biographical sketch.  At first I tried to remember these, thinking they would be important.  Then I realized they were nothing but fat…  The author had come up with these character bios, they had gotten onto the page, and –  probably because this author is very popular  – no one had the guts to tell him to take them off.

Right after that, I re-read Andre Norton’s Star Gate.  In contrast to my previous read, especially in matters of character, Star Gate almost seemed like the outline for a novel.  The characters weren’t cardboard or pawns for the action but, except for the protagonist, very little of the pasts of the other characters made it onto the page.  In some ways, this fit the book – Kincar is very much out of place and is the last person to start prying – but I wished Andre Norton had included a little more about the others.

So, how much back story do you want?  How much does it need to tie into the larger story?   When should it come in?  Chronologically?  After the plot already has you hooked?   When does back story become a drag and when is it a delightful spice that adds to the richness of the reading experience?

8 Responses to “How Much Back Story Do You Want?”

  1. Piscis Says:

    There’s definitely a balance to find with including characters’ backgrounds and history. Typically, the more I like a character, the more I want to know about them, and as such I try to sprinkle in background details for characters after hopefully giving readers a chance to become interested in them!

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    It depends, doesn’t it? Writing is basically a magic act where you take some words on a page and convince someone that they’re not just reading about other people, but a whole other world. Back story is just part of that whole, colossal illusion.

    To give a couple of examples, Sherlock Holmes did have much of a back story, although subsequent authors have delighted in filling in that blank space. Thing is, he didn’t need his personal history to solve mysteries. Rather, he needed to operate very much in the present, seeing the details that others missed, and Doyle had fun playing with what was hidden and revealed (using Holmes’ relationship with Watson) to make the story work. I think we know more about Watson’s backstory than we know about Holmes.

    Let’s compare that with Gandalf. Tolkien gave him a back story, I think in the Silmarillion or one of the other LOTR apocrypha. Not only is his backstory irrelevant, I can’t even remember the details or where I read them. Bilbo, Frodo, and Gollum, on the other hand, got their stories up front, and they mattered.

    It really depends on what makes the story work as an illusion. Some characters need a history to work, and some need to be mysterious. Each story is different.

  3. Chad Merkley Says:

    I can think of a couple of authors who have, in their recent installments of extended series, started to hugely expand their roster of POV characters, and include back stories for all of them. This has made their books more difficult for me to enjoy. The story line just becomes choppy. Many of these characters I simply don’t care about. I just want to read more about the sympathetic major characters introduced in earlier books.

    I think the authors’ reason for that is the stories they are trying to tell deal with very broad political and social issues spread across wide geographical areas–almost making pseudo-histories, rather than pseudo-biography. How many characters and back stories would you need to tell about, for example, the whole of World War II or the Civil Rights movement? But even in those cases, the amount of individualized back story could be greatly reduced without affecting the quality of the narrative. Okay, done ranting.

    So, anyway, as some questions I would want an author asking themselves about including back-story: How is this relevant to the total story? Does the structure of the back-story (3rd person narrator, as a flashback, story coming out in dialogue, or something else) fit into the narrative structure, or is it too much of a break stylistically? If it is a break, is it done for a purpose? Do you,as the author, want or need me, your reader, to be emotionally invested in that particular character? Does the back-story help me develop that investment? Does the back-story match the way the character has been presented up to the point where it has been revealed?

    I guess I’d consider back-story as an important part of an author’s toolkit, but sometimes it can be used to much, and sometimes another tool can do the job just as well.

  4. Nicholas Wells Says:

    I’ve never felt like a complete biography is required, in reading or writing. As a writer, I like to know for myself as much as I can, but probably 30-60% of what I know will never be known by the readers. Sounds like a wide range, but it all depends on the story, the issues, and what’s happening at the moment. A conversation, or just a thought, could spark a reminder of days past in a character. And these could easily play out in the coming pages. A regret comes back and forces the protagonist to react a certain way. If you don’t know what that regret is, his actions may not make sense. Plus it may give the reader the joy of predicting his actions before he decides on them. I know when I read, it’s often fun when I am able to do that accurately.

    But I’m with the “cut the fat” crowd. I don’t need the whole life story if I… uh… well… don’t need it. Give me the details that matter, that make him live, that explain why he is the way he is. You can do that without a mini-series on the biography channel.

  5. Ann M Nalley Says:

    Heteromeles used the word “magical,” and it resonated with me. My feeling (“gut”) is that if the character is well-developed and “real” to the author ~ a three-dimensional person in the author’s mind ~ the nuances of that character come through as the story progresses. If the author has a one-dimensional character, the lack of personality come through, too. In our own lives, we don’t want to know everything about someone’s past when we meet him/her. That relationship needs to naturally evolve over time, as the sharing becomes relevant to the relationship. There are many people who think they “know” me well who actually DON’T know very important events in my past. It’s not relevant to my relationship that they know them. In the same way, I feel that an author should not feel obligated to “tell all.”

  6. janelindskold Says:

    I often write biographies for my characters so I can get to know them, but I don’t feel required to put it all on the page. However, I do feel it helps the characters to react in an authentic fashion to events.

  7. CBI Says:

    I may be an exception, but *if* the main story is very good, then I appreciate some of the backstory in an appendix. So, I found the backstory of Gandalf (from the appendices, but mainly from The Silmarillion) to be enlightening. It became interesting to consider the relationship of Gandalf to Saruman and to Sauron — and how they fit into the long history of Arda and Morgoth & the other Ainur.

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