Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Building Back Histories

This topic is another one I thought would be important for any list of basic worldbuilding topics. Essentially, it amounts to, "How did we get to where we are?"

When we are working on telling a story, the question of the past often springs up. Sometimes, we want to work on it before we even get started. Sometimes, we create an elaborate account of the back history of a story and none of it appears directly in the story itself.

Keep in mind, though, that nothing you do to understand back history is ever wasted work, because the things we know change the words we use when we write a story. Chances are, the words you use will reflect your understanding of the back history even if you aren't explaining it.

I asked each of the discussants about experiences they had with creating back history for their stories. 

Kat told us that she had explored one key event, what she called "a catalyzing thing in culture," which helped her with a story about a near-future Earth. She'd gotten stuck in the front-story because she didn't have enough information about what had happened earlier. Ethnography and history are important so that the pieces of your front story can fit together, and make sense in relation to each other.

Morgan said she likes to look at something in her front story and try to explain how she got here. She asks: "Why can't I explain it? Do I dislike what it [background] would have to be? Does it not make sense?" She says it's very easy to get caught up in a character's backstory. Once you know the background, what does it change? Can you use background to make your story make sense and be believable?

Cliff told us that backstory is like scaffolding you use to build your story, and then you take it down. Tolkien did it for his own enjoyment. Cliff himself wants to have the minimum scaffolding required to build. He spent time with his novel universe "bouncing around" for years, figuring out what was going on with the people at the top of society, but it never worked. Then he started working with the people at the bottom, and the story came alive. He says when he's working with a short story, he usually starts with an image, and has to figure out what it means. Backstory fills itself in as he figures this out.

Kat made an important point, which is that sometimes you can get so much data in your head that it's hard to set it aside to write the story. There is a danger in getting too enraptured by worldbuilding.

Here are a few basic questions to ask:

How did this character get here? Why is the character motivated this way? What are the background conditions needed for the story to work? 

Cliff is opposed to "killing momentum" by asking too many questions.

How much do you really need to know? The answer to that is very individual. Morgan feels she needs to know more, even though all the research may not go into the story.

How relevant is the backstory? How important is it that we understand why things work the way they do?

Kat told us about her sensitivity reading work. She explained that she has seen thousands of words invested in a work by people who have never asked about the premises or setup of the story. When it comes to critical social underpinnings (like for example racism and sexism), maybe some stories don't need to be told if the writer doesn't understand the context in a nuanced way.

I personally made a number of back history extrapolations once I decided that my Varin world was going to be racially diverse. I had to find a way to explain why people who lived underground, and all on the same continent, would show variations in appearance. This led me to an extensive backstory about the people's arrival in this location from another place where they had been spread across a much larger geographic area, but united by a shared religion.

As Kat remarked, monocultures shouldn't be considered forbidden, but we need to understand why non-diverse places are not diverse. Some cultures have grown up in isolation, like indigenous groups before contact with outsiders. Even in a monoculture group, there will be subgroups, however. Think about what kind of subtle differences might seem important in that context. 

In Europe, when Catholicism was widespread, there were all sorts of schisms and disagreements, heresies, etc. There will always be complexity in human groups. Think about the places where people will identify differences. Any time a single social group contains only individuals who run entirely true-to-type, you will have a problem with lack of realism.

Several of our discussants recommended this article: Race: The Original Sin of the Fantasy Genre. It brings up really important issues to consider when embarking upon a fantasy project.

Any time you have more than one character, you need to have variation. Character backstory is a bridge to worldbuilding. Consider the relationship between a character's personal history and the history of their world; the two are intertwined.

We talked a bit about naming. When you have characters in a story, in general people tell you to have their names start with different letters... but what if they don't, because their identities were established in a different story and now they have met? Kate remarked that in some cultures (read: America and others), people with the same name get numbered. Some cultures distinguish between two people of the same name with epithets like "the unready" or "kinslayer," etc. We don't tend to see quite as many epithets in science fiction as fantasy, but there's no reason a writer couldn't use them. 

You could consider providing family trees for the characters in your book, if it helps to clarify.

Putting together timelines can be a helpful technique. "How long ago did it happen" is a question whose answer can vary depending on which story you are writing at the time, and where it falls on the world's timeline. Story X can be 30 years before story Y, while story Z is 25 years before story Y, which makes it five years after Story X. These relations can be important to track.

Kat asked whether she would need to change her timelines due to cultural characteristics (possibly). Different groups track time in different ways, and create different structures to organize events. 

Kat recommended the Father Brown Mysteries, because they have a lot of amazing detail about Catholic histories. They provide enough information for people who don't know the history, and not too much for people who already do know that history.

It's always a good idea to think through what we do or don't need to include. Basing these decisions on our sense of who constitutes our audience can be critical.

Ask: What does your character care about? How much do they care about it? How does this affect the actions and the plot? How deeply in sync is this person with their surrounding culture, and why?

Thank you to everyone who participated in this discussion. I hope to see you at Dive into Worldbuilding next Tuesday at 4pm Pacific!


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