I was sitting on our porch last night with my wife discussing a character that plays a prominent role in the novel she’s preparing to write.  The character is the grandfather of the heroine and we were talking about the wisdom the man has gained in his long life and how he will impart aspects of this wisdom to his granddaughter as she faces major obstacles in the story.

But what was most interesting in our discussion was my wife’s understanding of how critical it is to have fully explored the backstory of this grandfather so when she gets to writing the actual draft of her novel–with all it’s twists and turns and surprises that suddenly pop to the surface–she is armed with this man’s rich life’s history and all the lessons learned along the way.

We both agreed that writing a piece a fiction, whether it be a short story, a novel, a screenplay, a stage play or anything in between, the writer needs to approach characters as if they were real people with real pasts that have shaped who they have become.  Then when they enter the story and engage with the circumstances that the plot throws at them, they draw on this accumulated experience and respond to the situations facing them in a way that rings true and consistent with who they are.  Just like in real life.

Pre-draft backstory work, in other words, is one of the keys to good writing.  A writer may have an abundance of talent–even be overflowing with it–but if he or she begins writing the actual pages of a story without thoroughly exploring the backstories of the characters who will populate the tale, chances are good that the effort will end up stillborn.  Because it’s the people in the story who must ring true and the only way for that to happen is to know intimately who and what has shaped them and to have an exhaustive knowledge of the life they have led before first walking into the story.  Much of the details of this exploration might not ever be fully revealed in the actual pages of the finished work, but in a very real sense it will be there all the same.

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I’m the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our next residency runs June 19-28 2015.  We are now considering applications for starting the program in  January 2016.  I’m also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter), and a professional script consultant.