like to start with a story from my day job.
It was around 10:30, and I had
just received the nebulous news from a potential client that she wanted
to “talk to me.”
“Okay,” I said, and scheduled
her in for 2:00.
I must admit that I was curious.
I’d seen her walk by my office several times, peeking in my window,
giving me a hesitant smile.
What does she want to
talk to me about? I frequently fantasize about what brings
clients to my office, and this woman proved no exception. Was she
cheating on her husband? Secretly doing drugs? Addicted to gambling?
Unable to deal with her children?
Over lunch, I overheard two
staff members talking about this very woman. I leaned in closer, eager
for any little tidbits I could glean before my session with her. What I
heard was a game changer.
“Did you know XXX is a
“Yep. Goatee and all.”
Though I said nothing, my line
of thought was in sync with my coworkers. I left the table thinking, “Oh
my. She’s going to want to talk to me about cross-dressing and the
likely havoc this is causing in her marriage.”
I’ll skip telling you about my
anxiety at not having any therapeutic experience in this area at the
time and get to the part where she walks into my office at 2:00 on the
dot, no goatee in sight. We did the usual getting-to-know-each-other
dance, and then she got down to the nitty-gritty:
As she talked about the troubles
she was having getting her youngest daughter trained, I sat there and
thought: “She’s a cross-dresser. She’s a cross-dresser. Why
isn’t she bringing up the fact that she’s a cross-dresser?”
She left, a few star charts and
stickers in hand, grinning and thanking me, having said nothing about
the covert knowledge I had of her cross-dressing hobby.
tell this story? It’s a great exercise in the use of backstory. What
should authors take into account before dropping backstory?
There should be no accidents in
fiction. In my story, I received premature backstory that colored my
perception of my client. Its purpose was shock value (though my
coworkers knew this not). In therapy, this is not a good thing.
in fiction, this could be
exactly what your particular story needs. JK Rowling is famous for
having new characters introduced by others in a negative light, which
taints that character in the reader’s mind—but she does it on purpose.
Preconceived notions can be hard to overcome but powerful when done
2) Authorial Control
When dropping in bits and pieces
of backstory, do it with calculated accuracy not clumsy abandon. If you
are trying to manipulate your readers up front, be deliberate with how
you reveal the backstory. Timing is key, as is pacing and level of
reader connection. We can set up great moments of truth by pondering
how best to use these three components of authorial control.
In the case of my cross-dresser,
that information is so controversial and dynamic that if given at the
beginning of a romance book, readers probably would put it down, being
turned off by the subject matter, which is out of place for the genre;
however, if the book is suspense/thriller and my villain turns out to
be a cross-dresser, this would not only add to his psychological
profile, but it would likely pique reader interest, and it is certainly
not outside the realm of expectation for that genre.
Hopefully I’ve given you
something to chew on that will help flesh out your considerations for
hinting at backstory. Now I challenge you to go the rest of the day and
not think about my cross-dressing client with potty-training concerns.