I’ve always been fascinated with process and with what it takes to get that initial story-seed-idea developed enough to actually start writing it. One of the things I’ve noticed for years is the differences in what writers say they need in order to actually sit down and start writing, especially as regards the background and backstory – not just “what has happened to the character so far to get him/her to this point,” but “what is the history and the culture and the politics and the society like that shaped both the character and the problem to be faced?”
It doesn’t take much thought to realize that anyone who is writing a story set in a time/place/culture that they actually live in (and are therefore very familiar with) is not going to have to make up nearly as much as a writer who’s setting a story in a totally imaginary secondary world. There’s always some necessary research (it’s not what you don’t know that trips you up; it’s what you think you know that ain’t so), but mostly, the contemporary-real-world writer has to make up the specific circumstances and details of their characters’ lives and history. If they need an important historical figure to be a character’s influence or role model, they have an encyclopedia’s worth of folks to draw on, from thousands of years, countries, and cultures.
What I hadn’t thought about much until this weekend (when I was complaining to one of my exceedingly patient friends about the amount of backstory I feel it necessary to invent for The New Thing before I can actually sit down and start writing it) was that how much backstory one needs, in how much detail, is also a function of the type of story one is telling.
There’s an old saying that there are only two stories: a person leaves home, or a stranger comes to town. Regardless of how useful this is to think about as far as plots are concerned, it turns out to be a very important distinction (for me, anyway) when it comes to how much background/culture/backstory I have to know (and, if I’m not using a real or close-to-historical setting, make up) before I start writing.
Here’s why: A character who’s at home when a stranger comes to town is familiar with the status quo; the character has a life that’s steeped in the customs, culture, and history of the place they live. They usually take it all for granted, which means they don’t think directly about it much, yet this affects nearly everything they do, the way they think, the attitudes they have toward themselves and other people, and so on.
A character who leaves home is not moving through familiar territory. They’re off balance. Anything and everything, from social skills to architecture to fashion, can be different from what they’re used to. The character has to find out about customs, culture, history, etc. as they go along, and so does the reader…and the writer. Which means that the writer has more room to make up background as things go along and the character tries to make sense of this strange new world by connecting it with his/her familiar past.
In thinking about it, four of my first five novels have protagonists who are, one way or another, on a journey away from home. The fifth is dual-viewpoint, and one of the two POV characters is out running around away from everyone else. I didn’t start writing about people who stayed home until I started writing books based more closely on real history (specifically Snow White and Rose Red, which is set very firmly in Elizabethan England in 1582-3).
Looking at a number of my favorite long-running series, a lot of them begin with characters who are away from home – on a mission to another planet, stationed at a faraway outpost, discovered to have a talent and swept away from wherever they’ve lived so far. Once the writer has a few books under his/her belt – and has built up a lot of background in the process – they start showing the characters “at home,” writing prequels, or “historical” background novels, or finally allowing their main character to settle down and start having local adventures. In the few exceptions I can think of, either a) the series is strongly based in real-life history in some way, b) the characters think they understand their world but very quickly turn out to be wrong, or c) the author spent years working up background and backstory information before ever sitting down to write.
All of this is particularly relevant because the currently planned Work-in-Development involves a main character who is, so far as I’ve currently planned, not going anywhere. I’ve been complaining for months about how I keep trying to start writing and end up discovering that I need to make up more background before I can…and now I have some glimmer of understanding why.
The coming-of-age journey has been a staple of SF/F since its very early days. I’ve always more or less just accepted it – long before TV and Star Trek, science fiction was supposed to be about exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations, and boldly going where no man has gone before. It still is; I’d just never before thought about the advantages that gives to the writer in quite these terms.