A lot of fantasy stories have immense backstory. This isn’t so much the information about the fantasy world itself, but information about the characters’ personal histories, abilities, pasts with other characters, beliefs, travels, and so on. It needs to be in the story somehow. How do you get it in there without subjecting the audience to a character monologue that goes on for ten pages?
…I tend to err more on the side of cutting backstory when necessary, and including too few details rather than too many. These methods may not work if you prefer the profusion of rich detail. I think my attitude is more a reaction towards information-rich, plot-poor fantasies than anything else.
1) Use slotting.
Slotting is sliding the bits of necessary backstory in among other details in the present-time flow of the narrative. Instead of one big dumpling of information, we have many small dumplings. It makes the information much easier to swallow, and it’s usually easier to justify explaining things at that point in the book than it is to justify jumping out of the scene and excreting paragraphs about the character’s past.
This is not slotting:
King Radiere had trained for years to become the best soldier in the land. In the end, there was nothing he couldn’t do. He had mastered the rare art of juggling his swords in such a fashion that they could not cut him. He had mastered the tricks of the daggermages of far-off R’elene, the snake-dances of the even farther Snakerealms, the tear-inducing grace of the N’i’nim. He could have done all of these in one fight, though, and it would still not have been enough for him. He concentrated on outmatching an opponent in all things, not in simple artistic display.
Pelyanna was sure that he was gaping unattractively as he watched King Radiere toss a sword in the air and then catch it again, by the blade, without tearing his hand wide-open, but he didn’t care.
“Where did you learn how to do that?” he demanded.
Radiere tucked the sword away in its sheath. “R’elene, of course.” He paused for a moment, then shook his head. “No, perhaps that was in the Snakerealms. I’ve traveled too many places to be truly sure.” He shrugged, and gave Pelyanna that charming smile that Pelyanna was quickly beginning to find an irritant.
He would brag about how far-traveled he is, even now, Pelyanna thought. Well, he’s a king, isn’t he? All the wealth and probably the free time that he wants, since his people don’t have the sense to choose another monarch while he’s away.
That fits in King Radiere’s skill, gives the impression that he has a lot more of them, references some of the places that he traveled without dumping them obnoxiously all over the place, and characterizes another character who doesn’t have much reason to like the King and cheer him on. It won’t work for all bits of backstory, but it’s sure a hell of a lot more effective than the balls of dung that pass for backstory a lot of the time.
2) Does the backstory actually accomplish anything in the present story? If not, leave it out.
This might sound like I’m militating against any details at all, even the ones that aren’t essential but add depth or cuteness to the characters. I’m not. I’m against details that encumber the story and slow it down, things that it won’t matter at all for anyone to know. Making a character seem more real is a worthy purpose of backstory, but it’s too easy to add in details that don’t contribute to understanding of plot, character, or anything else.
If an incident happened to your character before this story began, that doesn’t qualify it to be in the present narration. I would want to know if the reason that the protagonist hates water is because she nearly got drowned by nixies once. I might think it cute if I know that she only likes drinking water from a certain spring near her home, and thinks the water of every other spring is dry and dusty and mineral-tasting. If she first bathed in a river at the age of three…well. What does that add to the story? If nothing traumatic or interesting or exciting or skill-developing happened there, and it doesn’t contribute to the depth of her character in the present- if it’s just a random fact- why is the author taking up my time with it?
Random facts, and perfectly ordinary incidents, are far too common in many fantasy stories. Unless you can relate the character’s favorite color or favorite song to her personality and/or plot today, you’re really not obligated to have it in there.
Also, the mere presence of random facts is often a misguided attempt at making the character seem more real. Some detail-obsessed authors believe that the minutiae of day-to-day life is what makes characters acquire solidity in the reader’s imagination. Perhaps for some genres that might be so, but with fantasy, do we need to have five pages of what the character did when milking cows and bringing feed to the horses on the farm where she grew up? Not if those “skills” are of utter irrelevance to her present life. Mention that she knows how to milk a cow and let it go. All you’d have to do is say that she was born on a farm as an explanation.
3) Choose a trigger.
One thing that irritates me about flashbacks and reminiscences on backstory in many fantasy books is that the character doesn’t have any particular reason to be thinking of that memory at that time. The author just feels that she absolutely must not let us get past page five without telling us that the character is a bird-watcher. Instead of having her spy a bird and think from there about its species, how she knows that, and her old bird-watching mentor whom she’s going to visit, however, she just springs the revelation out of nowhere:
“You’ve always been one of my favorite people.”
Cynthia smiled at John’s remark and combed her fingers through her hair. She thought as she rode of her days under Master Selnim, learning all the myriad names of the breeds of eagles and falcons, hawks and owls, that served as the hunters and messengers and sources of entertainment for King Accipter’s court…
What in John’s remark trigged that? What in the gesture? What in the ride? Nothing that I can see. The author sends the character speeding into Flashback-land on no apparent train.
Even in real life, people don’t often start remembering things for no reason. A dream, a scent, a color, a song, a letter from a friend they lost a long time ago, are all good triggers. It really doesn’t take that much to insert them into a fantasy, and it will make your flashbacks seem less constructed.
4) Make the flashbacks interesting.
Exposition (mere recitation of facts) is probably the hardest type of writing to handle well. People charge in and—it’s boring. If you can’t make me want to read about how long your character lived in this village and what friends she had there, I’m probably not going to read it. I’m going to skim, and if I really have to know who these people are, I’ll try my hardest to pick up clues from context. (This sometimes ties back to point 2; I’ve seen many authors who decked out the story with unnecessary adornment, when they could have trusted their readers to understand the past through the present story).
Highlight your flashbacks with sensory memories, witty lines, points that tell us why this event or person or quirk is still important to the character. Believe it or not, just because you know the backstory and care about it and think it’s clever doesn’t mean your readers will. I would much rather get into a clear, well-told story with lots of good scenes and good pacing than get slammed dead for two pages so that the author can explain the oh-so-traumatic drama of the character’s childhood to me.
Sometimes people do get the idea that, “Oh, yeah, it might be a good idea to introduce the backstory in compelling memories!” However, do remember the language it’s being told in.
5) Avoid purple passages of backstory.
Ideally, the backstory should be as well-told as the present-time narration. That means not making it wooden and stiff. It also means not using five synonyms for every color and such extremely stupid phrases as “the scent of her sardonyx eyes.” There are umpteen reasons for this, but the three most important are:
a) It distracts readers, in the opposite way from wooden prose, from the story you’re trying to tell.
b) If your character is not a person who normally thinks this way, it snaps the constraints of viewpoint.
c) It makes memories in general a dumping ground for craptastic metaphors, similes, “poetry,” and “longing.” The writer can start thinking that descriptive language stands in for emotion, when, really, descriptive language is descriptive language. It’s what you do with it that’s important. Its being pretty is secondary to its clarity.
You wouldn’t put “FLASHBACK” at the top of a flashback passage in an ordinary story, would you? No. Then why use this kind of signal that separates the backstory from the present-time narration no less clumsily?
6) Remember that leaving minor mysteries can also add depth to your characters.
Even if your character has lived twenty full years before the book begins, you don’t have to shine a spotlight into every one of those years of life. Shine enough of them and you end up with a character who doesn’t cast a shadow.
If the character thinks about “the one criminal he ever let go,” but that criminal never appears in this story and the details of it aren’t vital to a situation in the developing narrative, then why not leave it a bit of a mystery? Particularly if this character is not the viewpoint one, and doesn’t trust the viewpoint one enough to tell her everything about his life, it can add depth to her character to see him smiling mysteriously and not know what it’s about.
And about that secrecy. Fantasy seems to favor characters who don’t spill all their knowledge, but only up to a certain point. Something will happen that causes the person to “trust” the other characters, and suddenly we’re reading through ten pages where they burble like an idiot a baby. Yet would even a few months or years of close companionship prompt the character to loose hold of all his secrets? The ones that impact his companions’ lives, maybe, but things purely personal to him? It sounds more like the kind of thing he might confide to a close lover rather than ten or twelve other people. Another way of deepening the character.
Leave depths, shadows, mountain heights that the story never ascends, and you leave yourself depths and shadows and heights in the story- and, maybe, places to go when the present tale is done.
I prefer fantasies that move like Arabian horses, I think, light and swift. Backstory is a big culprit in making them lumber.