Why a Backstory?

 

Update!

Starting this month (January 2016), subscribers to the News & Updates Newsletter (see here) will receive exclusive access to backstories from my notes.   These backstory notes pertain to characters encountered within The Year of the Red Door and provide information not included within the story.

Read More about the News & Updates Newsletter

We’ve all had the “Aha!” experience when reading something about a character’s past that explains some quirk or motive. That’s backstory. Not all backstories make it into the narrative. Sometimes they are written down by the author but never used in the main story.

But as a writer, I find that working on the backstory of a character helps me in a couple of ways.   First and foremost, it helps me understand the character better.   Second, it helps me understand the context of an event in which a character takes part or that affects a character.   All this is true, even if I never use the backstory information in the story itself.

Take Mar Henith, as an example. He is a minor character who appears in The Dreamwalker (due out in September 2016). He’s the Redvest general who leads the siege and assault on Tallinvale. In The Dreamwalker, very little is said about him because the important things can be inferred by the reader: He is a careful and meticulous general who goes about his preparations to overthrow Tallinvale very patiently. He is confident in his own experience and his own judgment, since he resists the advice of subordinate officers to initiate an assault before all of his assets are in place.

We are told that General Mar Henith is a former Kingsman, as is his opponent Lord Tallin. The two opposing leaders share certain qualities of professionalism, cunning, and determination, and we may assume these are qualities that were instilled and developed in the two men during their Kingsman days. And that’s about all the reader really needs to know about Mar Henith.

But the events at Tallinvale and elsewhere did not come out of a historical vacuum. There are unstated connections between Mar Henith, Ullin Saheed Tallin, and Ullin’s father, Aram. Also with Captain Martin Makeig, Winterford, and some of the people of Hill Town that we meet in The Bellringer and The Nature of a Curse. In the Reader’s Companion is the following Glossary entry:

Mar Henith:

The Redvest general and former Kingsman who oversaw the siege of Tallinvale in the late Second Age.

Mar Henith was born in 817 S.A., the only son of Lord Emard of the mortal House of Gull, in Tracia Realm. Upon his father’s retirement from serving as a Kingsman, son Mar Henith became a Kingsman in his father’s place. At the Academy, Mar Henith performed well, and was particularly adept at engineering. Because of this, he was assigned to the famed 3rd Engineer Battalion of the Kingsman First Army. He served with distinction during the Second Siege of the Green Citadel, where he supervised the building of siege towers and large trebuchets. After the sack of the city, his battalion was amongst the first to be withdrawn, and its members suffered the fewest casualties during the retreat since they traveled a different route than the main army. A few weeks after the battle, Mar Henith (along with nearly all Tracians serving as Kingsmen) abruptly resigned his commission and returned to Tracia.

The House of Gull was a staunch supporter of the Triumvirate, and upon Mar Henith’s return to Tracia he was given the rank of general in the Redvest Army and immediately put in charge of fighting Loyalist forces in Tracia. Under his command, Redvest forces successfully took Weatherlee and Sorghwall. Henith was then recalled to Forlandis to oversee certain aspects of securing that city.

General Mar Henith, whose forces had not yet known defeat, was sent against Prince Lantos in 856, and he commanded the Redvests at the Battle of the Marshlands.   There, Mar Henith successfully cut off the Loyalists from receiving provisions by land and forced a battle that lasted four days and nights, with much of the fighting taking place in the swamps and marshes.   Prince Lantos was forced to concede the field, as it were. Lantos then led a rearguard action against Mar Henith’s pursuing Redvests that allowed many of his Loyalist soldiers to escape by boats through the marshes to the sea. There, they were picked up by ships bound for Glareth.   Mar Henith, seeking to capture rather than kill Prince Lantos, continually sought to surround the Prince. But, in a daring move, Loyalist Naval forces sent a contingent of marines assisted by local Tracian boatmen into the marshes by night and rescued the Prince and his remaining men.   They would be taken aboard the Barge Royale and soon would be engaged in a naval battle at Grisland Strait. However, the Battle of Marshlands is considered a victory for the Redvest Triumvirate, and for General Mar Henith, since it effectively eradicated organized resistance to the Triumvirate on Tracian soil.

Mar Henith was hailed by the Redvests as a hero, and soon all of Tracia was under the complete domination of the Triumvirate.   Some years later, when the Triumvirate planned their invasion of Masurthia, Mar Henith warned against leaving Tallinvale on their northern flank, and he requested an army be given him that was sufficiently large to invade Tallinvale and overwhelm Tallin City.   However, the Triumvirate did not fully heed Mar Henith.   Instead, they sent Mar Henith to assist in the organization of the massing armies that were to go westward while they sent an inexperienced general with an inadequate force against Tallinvale. The results, as Mar Henith had predicted, were disastrous. The Redvest army sent against Tallinvale was cut to pieces and routed by Tallinvale.   Enraged and embarrassed, the Triumvirate reversed themselves and ordered Mar Henith to lead a massive force to conquer and destroy Tallinvale.

Those other connections that I mentioned? Mar Henith served in the same Battalion that Ullin Saheed would later serve in. Ullin’s father also fought at the Second Siege of the Green Citadel. And after Prince Lantos escaped Mar Henith at the Battle of the Marshlands, it would be Captain Martin Makeig who would save the Prince from capture at the Battle of Grisland Strait. In the Reader’s Companion there are many similar entries about other minor characters, some that are terse “reference” entries and others that are more “story-like.”

But, why?

So why did I write this backstory knowing that it wouldn’t be used in the story? Well, I’m not sure I can adequately explain. I think it has to do with “fullness.” It might be noted that many actors create backstories for the characters they are to portray.

Frankly, I was a bit fascinated by a man who could command the respect of thousands of others, could plan and carry out a winter siege and a massive assault on a mighty fortress such as Tallin City. So I simply wanted to know more, and I explored it on paper in my notes. Thus emerged the backstory for General Mar Henith. Another reason has to do with convenience. After all, somebody had to drive Prince Lantos out of Tracia, and somebody had to lead the attack against Tallinvale. Might as well be the same person. Makes it all easier.

Backstories (even if they only appear only in my notes) are tools. As I write, I use them to help the continuity of events and the relationships between characters straight. And, I must admit, sometimes it was just fun to jot down a few backstory notes.

Are backstories necessary to the tale? I’m not sure. But I think they are something like the hidden structures that support theatrical props and stage sets. Does the audience need to know about them? No. The castle wall onstage is a castle wall to the audience, regardless of how it is held upright. Could those supports holding up the castle wall be replaced with some other kind of hidden support? Say, with cables instead of wooden struts? Probably. Could I write a better story without using my backstory notes? Hm. I really don’t think so.

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Update!

Starting this month (January 2016), subscribers to the News & Updates Newsletter (see here) will receive exclusive access to backstories from my notes.   These backstory notes pertain to characters encountered within The Year of the Red Door and provide information not included within the story.

Read More about the News & Updates Newsletter

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