The Past Is Present

The importance — and overuse — of backstory


I recently reviewed House of Spies, the latest in Daniel Silva’s entertaining espionage thrillers featuring Gabriel Allon as the head of Mossad, the legendary Israeli spy agency. As I noted in my review, Allon was not always a spy chief. He started out as an art restorer who also spied for Israel. Since Allon’s rise in the spy-craft ranks is spread out over a dozen novels, Silva uses plenty of backstory to bring the reader up to speed.

Backstory serves three purposes for authors who write series with repetitive characters. Two are admirable. The third, not so much.

The first purpose, of course, is to supply context, especially as it relates to the main protagonist, who has been fleshed out bit by bit in previous novels. Some authors go into great detail showing how their hero grows over time. Occasionally, the growth is physical. Protagonists get older, fatter, and slower. (I think Nero Wolfe started out that way.)

But usually such contextual backstory relates to emotional and intellectual growth. Characters learn from their experiences. In good and bad ways.

Take James Bond. If Ian Fleming didn’t occasionally refer to Vesper Lynd, the British agent who killed herself and broke Bond’s heart with her treachery in Casino Royale, the first book in the Bond series, readers might think 007 was merely a cold-hearted bastard who kills for queen and country and treats women as disposable pleasure providers.

Instead, we can see Bond as a man who generally treats his women with respect but shies away from serious commitment. His hurt makes him more human. (Of course, later in the series, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he does fall in love again, only to see Tracy, his new wife, murdered. Oh, well, that’ll teach him!)

The second purpose of backstory is to give series fans what they want. In a truly successful series (Fleming’s Bond, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee come to mind), recurring characters are as comforting to readers as an old pair of slippers. I’ve read all the Spensers (several times each), and Parker’s ever-expanding cast (Hawk, Susan, Quirk, Belson, Vinnie Morris, to name a few) are as vital to my reading enjoyment as any of the villains Spenser dispatches. By the way, some of the villains survive and join the cast!  

The third reason an author adds reams of backstory is less edifying, but certainly understandable, especially if the author’s plots and characters have become stale. When you are struggling to finish a 70,000-word book, a couple of thousand words of backstory can be a lifesaver.

Some authors can add even such pecuniary fluff effortlessly. Others just drop it in and stop a narrative in its tracks. (“He sighted the crosshairs of the sniper scope on his target and slowly began to squeeze the trigger. His finger ached with the arthritis that has affected it since that day in Malta during his first assignment for A.S.S., the Australian Secret Service. The finger was never the same after it was bitten by the rabid kangaroo…”

Some authors, no matter what their intent, give very few details about their main characters, other than easily repeatable idiosyncrasies. But even Lee Child, the British author of the popular Jack Reacher series, has had to provide some backstory, probably because readers would think Reacher was nuts without some explanations for his many loner eccentricities.

I mean, who travels around the country with a fold-up toothbrush and one set of underwear? (Which, of course, might explain why he has so few friends.)

Lawrence De Maria, once a Pulitzer-nominated New York Times reporter, has recently released his 17th self-published novel, Shadow of the Black Womb, an ALTON RHODE mystery, on Amazon.com. His books are available at ST. AUSTIN’S PRESS (BOOKS BY DE MARIA). He uses plenty of backstory in his three series and is considering combining it all in one book. The book, naturally called The Backstory Conspiracy, might be a tad confusing. Then again, maybe nobody would notice.

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