Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Writer's Wednesday: The Implied Past

Harlequin Historical author and PHS editor Michelle Styles discusses other ways to introduce backstory .
It is universally ackowledge truth in writing that a character without a past rapidly becomes wooden. However, if the past is introduced too rapidly, the author commits the sin of info dump with a heavy dose of table dusting. table dusting is a term from the theatre where two maids used to stand around discussing their betters in the first scene before the main action took place. It tends to kill tension. The two main ways to introduce back story are either through direct flashback or through detailed descriptions of back story for example a character recounting a memory. I would argue that in order for the reader to care about the memory, she first needs to care about the character and so such things are best sved for later in the story when they can make a huge impact.
There are some other ways to flesh out a character's background and the world they live in. Brief one liners that barely stop the action, and the implied past through expectations, habits and networks.
A brief one liner is done so there is barely a pause in the action. For example, in my upcoming release To Marry A Matchmaker, the heroine explains to the hero:
Since arriving in Northumberland, I have facilitated three marriages, two reconcillations between estranged parents and their children and one christening.  It is altogether a brilliant achivement for sixteen months work.  The marriages etc are never precisely detailed because they are not important to the story. Henrietta's machinations and propensity to meddle are.
Expectation is what the character expects will happen in a given set of circumstances. Again from To Marry A Matchmaker:  Henri says to the hero when questioned why she arranged for the wedding breakfast to take place in a garden during one of the wettest summers in Northumberland.  Lady Winship offered Aydon Castle's hall. However, one must always consider the potential for her pugs to escape. On balance, the  garden was a less tricky option.  Hopefully the reader can conclude for herself that the pugs have escaped before and ruined one of Henri's events.
A habit is something that a character always does.  For example, does the character always go to church? Or do they always take a specific route home? Or something they always do in a specific instance? For example: Henri put her hand to her chest and adopted her 'woman of sorrow' expression. It had held her in good stead for ten years whenever the prickly subject of remarriage was brought up. Again hopefully the reader will see that Henri has adopted a specific gesture and seeks to avoid discussing her remarriage even when she is trying to arrange other people's.
Finally there are networks. These are the community that the characters exist in and how they relate to other people. The hints about the networks help give insight into a character's past.  The connections.  For example  in chapter 2 the local gossip in To Marry A Matchmaker says 'Miss Nevin had it from her maid of all work who is best friends with the doctor's cook who steps out with the footman at the New Lodge.'
Henri breathed easier. Servants. There would be some truth to the rumour but it would have been twisted and contorted even before it had reached Miss Armstrong.
Other than that incident, the characters of the maid, the doctor's cook and footmen don't appear but their mention helps to breathe life in the characters' world.  It also helps to characterize Miss Armstrong as a gossip. It makes it seem as if the characters have lived a full life without having to info dump or delve deeply into the past.
So hopefully you can see that the fleshing out the backstory of a chacracter can be done in other ways besides long info dumps or table dusting conversations.

If you are interested in learning more about how to use the implied past, can I recommend Characters & Viewpoints by Orson Scott Card.
You can read an excerpt from To Marry A Matchmaker at Michelle Styles's website( .  To Marry a Matchmaker is Michelle Styles's next UK release (out in paperback July 2011).


  1. This is a great post! And does a great job whetting the appetite for TMaM!

  2. I agree that habits are important to characterization as well as developing a realistic backstory. Characters who have habits always seem real to me, as a person who has a few herself.

    Great post Michelle!

  3. Hi Michelle,

    Thanks for the great tips regarding back story and creating better characters.

  4. what a coincidence Michelle, I've just finished reading "Character and Viewpoint" by Scott Card - found it very helpful, too.