On Writing: Backstoried

So Heroscape is no more.  One of the greatest tabletop games of all time has perished from this earth.  All things must pass, and it’s not as if my collection of Heroscape stuff is going anywhere.  But still, it stinks to watch something cool end.  But such is life.

Funny though.  Without Heroscape, I don’t think I’d be married today.  It was through Heroscape and a convoluted series of events that I met my lovely wife.  So if you ever love why I love games, that’s why.  They’ve given me hours of fantastic entertainment, taught me quite a bit about life (even though I know that sounds absurd), and they got me a wife.  So a guy really can’t ask for much more than that.  Although if they could somehow create a game that could give me laser vision, I’d want for nothing.  But that’s probably being greedy.

I went to a friend’s book club meeting this weekend, and it was a lot of fun.  It’s always cool to meet people who are excited to meet me.  When I do a booksigning, for example, I tend not to attract much of a crowd.  If I sign or sell four or five books, it’s a rousing success.  So when I actually get to talk to people that seem happy to see me, it’s still something I’m not entirely used to.

The book read was Gil’s All Fright Diner, and one of the questions asked was about Tammy.  If you haven’t read the book by chance, Tammy is the villain of the piece, a teenage sorceress with sinister designs on the titled diner.  Tammy is of Japanese descent, and she’s also adopted.  Someone asked me what happened to her parents and how she ended up in Rockwood.

I admitted I had no idea.  Hadn’t really thought about it.

There’s a myth that in order to write a character, you have to know everything about them.  It’s absolutely not true.  There’s another myth that if something is unusual about a character, it probably ties into the plot in some way.  So if Tammy is adopted, that must mean something.  But, honestly, it was just something that happened as I wrote the story.  Tammy was Japanese-American, an off-hand detail thrown in for no good reason other than why-the-heck-not?  And she was adopted because . . . well, for exactly the same reason.

Most of my characters do not have elaborate backstories, and I like it that way.  I don’t really care how they got where they are most of the time.  I care where they are and where they’re going.  Some might argue that you need to know a character’s past to understand how they would react, but I tend to view the past as an illusion anyway.  I’m less concerned with what happened in the past than with how they relate to the world now.

It’s tricky.  There are indeed times when backstory is important, and for some characters, their history is absolutely essential.  But I usually find it irrelevant.  One of the most elaborate backstories I’ve ever created belonged to Mack Megaton, the protagonist of The Automatic Detective.  Mack actually has quite a bit of justification for how he came to be.  And none of it ended up in the book, aside from a few hints here or there.  There just wasn’t a place for it, and to put it in would’ve only slowed the novel’s pace.

But even in stories where backstory is important, I usually am uninterested.  I couldn’t care less about how Darth Vader became evil or how the Empire came to power, for instance.  I don’t need to know how the Jedi were wiped out or how Luke Skywalker was born.  All those questions are irrelevant.  And trying to answer them only ends up tying everything into uncomfortable knots of continuity snarls.

I still believe that my job as a writer is to tell you just enough of a story that you can make as much or as little of it as you want.  Perhaps in your imagination, Tammy’s parents were sacrificed to a dark god and their daughter was shipped to Rockwood to begin the Apocalpyse.  Or maybe they just died in a car crash.  Or maybe they just gave her up because they didn’t like kids.  Your answer is as good as mine, and that’s cool with me.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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  1. Rippley
    Posted November 9, 2010 at 1:27 am | Permalink

    I see where you are coming from, I think. There would be no reason for your characters to have back-stories because a) you have vowed to never write a serial b) none of your characters are reoccurring in other stories. Why do people think that the writer gives each character a back-story when a back-story is only valuable for serials and reoccurring characters? Hmmm…

    But then again, why do you phase answers so elusively? “There are indeed times when backstory is important, and for some characters, their history is absolutely essential. But I usually find it irrelevant,” is a vague answer to something that can be explained fairly straightforward. Why so elusive?

    I’m not picking on just you. Writers, in general, when interviewed, can’t give a straightforward answer. Writers go to mystery town when any portion of the craft is brought up. Even in classes where the professors are supposed to be giving you the skinny on the “creative writing” process, the stupid award-winning author–turned professor– makes vague, mystery ridden statements about the topic-at-hand. In fact, I’ve heard more more specific information give by a con on con artistry than I have a writer on the craft.

    Is there some sort of secret society where elder authors teach younger authors to be vague in every statement they give about the craft? Does the Writers Guild of America come in during the potential signing of each book and say, “We’ll allow this publisher to publish your book only if you solemnly swear to never give a straight forward answer about the craft. Otherwise, we’ll torture your family, kill you poor cat, fluffy, cut off all your fingers, staple your tongue to the floor, and, basically make your life a living hell.”? Because I don’t get it. Why would authors be so elusive concerning one central topic? Why?

    And another thing, what the hell else is a reader/audience going to ask you? The reader knows nothing about you as a person. Of course they’re going to ask questions about what you are writing, if you will write a sequel to their favorite book, and millions of questions and critiques writers usually hate. What the hell else are they going to ask you about, if they know nothing about you? Golly, how is the weather in Texas? Do you know George W. Bush? How many people do you know who have been arrested for fucking pigs in pig fucking Texas? Honestly, are those the type of questions you want?

    Give me the name of an author who will answer questions in a straightforward manner.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted November 9, 2010 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

      Rippley, I think you are making a mistake in assuming I’m being “elusive”. The fact of the matter is that the writing process isn’t as straightforward and simple as that. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the process varies from individual to individual and that you have to find a method that works for you and the results you get.

      The problem with trying to pin it down to a straight answer is that there are no straight answers to give. This is why I prefer learning to write in more active learning environments rather than in passive lecture-style education. The best way to learn about writing is to write and to discuss and share with others if possible. Every rule can be broken. Every truth is subjective.

      A story goes that a writer was speaking at an event and someone stood and asked: “How many adjectives do I need in a sentence?”

      “It’s not an exact number,” he replied. “It really depends on what you are writing.”

      “I’m sick of you writers refusing to answer a simple question!” she said. “I just need to know the answer to this!”

      The writer paused and with a perfectly straight face, said, “Three adjectives.”

      It satisfied her, but it wasn’t the correct answer.

      The point is that most writers are uncomfortable telling you exactly how to write because we realize that any rule can be broken and every writer has to discover their own way of doing it. I know it can be frustrating, but it’s just the way it is. I can’t tell you hwo to write. I can only tell you how I write. And no matter how I do it, there is someone who does it differently and manages to make it work.

  2. Rippley
    Posted November 13, 2010 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    So, there is a secret society?

  3. Posted November 14, 2010 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    There are not RULES in the worlds or stories you create in writing.

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