Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Cat Is Going To Swat Oliver. I Repeat, The Cat Is Going To Swat Oliver

I was born into a long and distinguished line of feline overlords five years ago. Our kind had always ruled over the lowly humans with an iron claw. They catered to our every whim, feeding our delicate appetites with only the best, because that's all we would stand for. They gave us all the attention we sought, treated us as gods, because we deserve no less. In return, we treated them with disdain and sullen attitude. It's an expected thing to do when dealing with lower life forms.

And then there came the day when I, Sovereign Majestrix Felicity the Mousekiller, encountered my arch foe. For that was the day when my human servant Alice met the fop who calls himself Oliver. I mean, honestly, what self respecting human uses that name?

Ahem. Couldn't resist. Sorry about that....

Before I get started today, I'm also guest blogging over at Beths' blog, where I'm blogging about telegraphs and telegrams.  Be sure to check it out. And now, on with todays' foolishness...

Backstory. It's a narrative in a novel that refers to an earlier time then the main part of the book. It can be revealed through exposition, flashback, summary, or other means, weaved into the narrative, or it can be its own narrative, serving perhaps as an opening chapter in the book.

In the espionage genre, a backstory will often be the history of the villain, or a crucial supporting character being introduced for the first time. A protagonist will usually have their backstory introduced in bits and pieces through the narrative of several books, if it's a series, but if the author's telling the story of a character who's only turning up one time, using the back story is a handy way of getting the reader acquainted with the character.

Last time out, I talked about the genre and three of the big names in the traditional side of things. I thought I'd return to them today with a look at their techniques for employing backstory in their books.

Tom Clancy has given the world his main character, Jack Ryan, a CIA analyst who rises through the ranks of the Agency to ultimately become the President of the United States. That is, of course, when Jack wasn't dealing with his author frequently stopping to explain a techno-fact along the way. Jacks' backstory gets weaved into the narrative in bits and pieces, particularly in the early books, like The Hunt For Red October and Patriot Games, as we were just getting to know him. He's a former Marine, his parents died in a plane crash, and he doesn't like to fly. He has a deeply estranged relationship with his father-in-law. The bits and pieces technique actually works well when you're starting out with your protagonist in a series: don't give the readers too much at a time. Just as long as you don't retcon things in future books that you write as prequels. Mr. Clancy, Red Rabbit is Peoples' Exhibit #1 in this matter.
Clancy brought another primary character into the game in Cardinal of the Kremlin, a field operative named John Clark. His backstory remained essentially a blank for three books, barely hinted at, until Without Remorse. The book is essentially all backstory, set well before the present day books, during the last stages of the Vietnam War. It follows the character from his days as a Navy SEAL to becoming a CIA agent, while the man himself wages his own secret war against a drug gang to avenge a tragedy in his personal life.

Backstory has played its role for other characters in Clancy novels. In Cardinal, a spy deep in the Soviet government often finds himself flashing back to his experiences in the Second World War, sequences that are crucial to explain why he becomes a spy against his own country. In the novel Debt of Honor, a villain has a deeply personal connection to the WWII story of Saipan, and his reflections on it form a critical part of his motivation. And in Rainbow Six, the people pulling the strings behind a diabolical scheme to wipe out much of humanity have their own backstories, carefully placed in such a way not to expose their agenda to the reader until Clancy is ready to reveal it.

Jack Higgins has, for the last twenty years, concentrated most of his effort on the Irish gunman turned British agent, Sean Dillon. He's introduced first in Eye of the Storm, where he's the villain, a one time student of the theatre who turned to the IRA after his father was killed. The book concerns itself with placing Dillon as the man who's hired to attack Ten Downing Street with a mortar during Desert Storm (an attack that really did happen). Dillon becomes the protagonist in the following books when the British make him a deal he can't refuse, primarily because Higgins' wife told him Dillon was too good a character to kill off. In the books that follow, Dillons' backstory makes the occasional appearance here and there, from connections to multiple terrorists on both sides of the Irish issue to operations he's taken part in back in the old days.

Higgins' technique is to often start off in the past with a novel, so a chapter or more might serve on its own as the backstory, seperate from the main narrative. In Thunder Point, the escape of the Nazi Martin Bormann by submarine sets off a chain of events that lead to the present day action and links to the antagonists Dillon has to deal with. Angel of Death uses opening chapters to unveil how a terrorist group comes together over a handful of years. Drink With the Devil uses the first third of the book as pure backstory, since that portion is set several years before the main narrative, following a Protestant Irish terrorist who pulls off a gold heist in the English countryside. The ramifications spill over into the modern day.

Most notably in The President's Daughter, Higgins uses backstory to open the book. He follows the life and career of a young man from the Vietnam War days to the White House, which includes an ill fated romance and finding out long after the fact that he has a daughter. It links into the current day action when that daughter is kidnapped and used as a bargaining chip for a terrorist group who wants the American President to do the unthinkable.

Daniel Silva has made use of backstory in creative ways as a novelist too. Most of his novels have centered on the operative Gabriel Allon and his colleagues. From the earliest books, like The Kill Artist, we learn that Gabriel has been killing people for the state of Israel since the aftermath of the Munich incident. We discover that he's suffered the death of a son and the physical and psychological maiming of his first wife, an act of revenge by an old enemy. Silva weaves details here and there about Gabriel in the books that follow, showing us how he came to be an art restorer (a very handy cover for a man in his profession), and his ties to some of the people in his life, the people who in the more recent books become his team of operatives.
In some of the more recent books, the backstory of a villain comes in the form of a briefing. In the recent Portrait of a Spy, the backstory of two terrorists is laid out midway through the book, the members of the team going through what they know of both men as if the entire chapter is an intelligence briefing. It's a different way of giving the reader a taste of a character, somewhat detached from that characters' point of view, but it works beautifully.

With Heaven & Hell, I've been making use of backstory in various ways. With my protagonists, it's tended to lean towards the "bits and pieces" at a time mentality. There's no need to give away too much at once, since they'll be back again in future books. Where my antagonists are concerned, they get much more of a fully revealed backstory. The first three chapters of the book, in fact, are their story. Over a period of several years, starting fifteen years in the past, the events that bring together the Covenant are laid out, coming to a conclusion with their first official operation as a terrorist group.

A certain dead Muppet's backstory....
Backstory plays a considerable part in fiction writing, but in the espionage genre it's particularly useful. I've certainly made use of it, and in works to come, I'll be revisiting this narrative device.

Post script: Yes, the title's yet another play on espionage codephrases... but let's face it. Someone named Oliver deserves to get swatted.


  1. I was really getting into the cat story. You have to finish it!

    You're absolutely right on the backstory issues. This is what I like about doing a series--so much time to learn about your characters.

  2. I'm bringing back a couple secondary characters from Box of Rocks in the next book. I really like letting actions and dialogue tell a character's background story and illustrate their personality. It's a very organic way to work bits and pieces throughout the book. Writing narrative background feels stiff and contrived for me. Probably the same for a lot of authors.

  3. I don't know, I think the whole cat thing grabs you into the story.
    I think readers love to see characters back again and again. Tom Clancy is very talented in getting the audience to relate to his characters.
    I've never read Daniel Silva.

  4. You don't need backstory in your just have to tell everyone that they'll like it and they fact, they'll love it!

    Great blog...and pics!

  5. Thanks for reminding me to employ more back story while I do my revisions. Great post!

  6. Backstory...causes my editor to scream. I've had to make a lot of adjustments to SS. Still debating some backstory in an early chapter. I want to keep it. She wants it to go somewhere else. YIKES!

  7. I probably shouldn't say this, but at first glance, that "O" at the bottom of the Debt of Honor cover looks like Pac-Man....

  8. I'm sure the Japanese flag doesn't appreciate being compared to a videogame!

  9. It still looks like Pac-Man.

    But then, I have really bad eyesight....

  10. I'm with Karla. I really prefer giving backstory through dialogue rather than narrative.

  11. I do a mixture of both dialogue and narrative.


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