When you sit down to create a character, where do you start? Maybe you start with a name, or a physical description, or some basic personality traits. Before long you’ll probably begin to wonder how your character got the way he or she is now. Which is why it’s important for the story to start before it actually starts, if you get my meaning.
Take, for example, Roland Deschain from Stephen King’s The Gunslinger. He’s a sombre, soft-spoken, mysterious type, and you probably would be too if you had a childhood like his (his mom was sleeping with his dad’s top advisor, for god’s sake). In fact, Roland’s past is so important to his present that we need to see it up close and personal. That means backstory.
But offering details on a character’s background is tricky. Constant flashbacks can interrupt the flow of a progressing story, and dropping little details into the narrative can sometimes come across as expository. For example, Character A says, “Remember the time you got that scar?” Character B frowns and says, “Sure. I’ll never look at blenders the same way again.”
Of course these characters remember that moment. In fact, the only thing I’m doing by including this exchange is telling the reader exactly what’s going on. Which is about as subtle as a slap to the face.
King, however, does something very impressive with The Gunslinger. It’s a novel that’s very much about the past, a novel where each character is shaped and motivated by things that happened long before. These events are so important, in fact, that it won’t suffice to reference them through dialogue or brief description. So here’s what King does, and does very well: he references a character whom we’ve never met before in the Gunslinger’s thoughts, then comes back to that character in quick flashbacks.
The emphasis is on quick. Even a single overlong flashback can mess with the flow of your story, can make readers feel like they just want to skip ahead to the main plot line. That’s never something you want your readers to feel.
In The Gunslinger, for example, a boy from New York City named Jake Chambers suddenly appears in the Gunslinger’s world without explanation. He tells the Gunslinger that he can’t remember anything about how he got there, so we’re left to wonder. That, however, would be quite the fraying loose end, so King gives us a brief flashback to explain how Jake got there.
But it’s not just a flashback for the sake of a flashback: we learn two very important details from it. One, that Jake died before coming to the Gunslinger’s world, and that is perhaps why he’s there. And two, that Jake was somehow sent there by the man in black, who is the Gunslinger’s arch nemesis (excuse the lack of actual names–it’s all about the mystery, baby).
I’m drawn to this aspect of King’s novel because I struggle a lot with character backstory in my writing. It’s hard to know what to give and when to give it, but it’s a skill that can be developed through practice and careful study of the pros.
That, and not having too many flashbacks.
If you liked this blog, you might also like my review of The Gunslinger. Find it here.