Finding the right approach to revealing a character’s back story is one of the bigger challenges in fiction writing, at least for me. What’s too much? Too little? I learned a lot introducing private eye Andy Hayes’s painful relationship with his parents in The Hunt, as I explain in a guest post in The Rap Sheet, reproduced in its entirely below…
One of the most important tasks when creating a mystery series from scratch is developing your protagonist’s back story. It’s safe to say you should have the basics down first: a straight, male ex-military police officer running a one-person investigative agency; a married gay cop overseeing a cold-case squad; a divorced female private eye with a background in insurance fraud and a black belt in Tae Kwan Do, etc. But where do you go from there? How much should you know about your character’s personal life when starting out? Maybe part of what makes her tick is that she’s widowed and averse to long-term relationships. But is that the whole story? And if there’s more, how do you provide the information without dragging down the narrative?
When I started writing about Andy Hayes, my fictional private eye in Columbus, Ohio, I knew three things for certain: he was an ex-Ohio State quarterback with a sullied reputation from his playing days; he was twice divorced with a son from each marriage; and he lived in German Village, a trendy neighborhood south of downtown, with his Labrador, Hopalong (named for the 1955 Ohio State Heisman Trophy winner, Howard Albert “Hopalong” Cassady).
Beyond these bare-bone details, there was a lot I didn’t know about Hayes. The fun has been in discovering new things as I went along, many of them unknown to me until the day they popped up on the screen as I wrote. For instance, at the end of the first Hayes book, Fourth Down and Out (2014), we learn exactly what led to my protagonist’s downfall as a player. In Slow Burn (2015), I explored the years Hayes spent battling his demons after his football burnout through the back story of an ex-fiancée whose help he must enlist to solve a triple-arson homicide. In both Slow Burn and Capitol Punishment (2016) I reveal more about Hayes’ life growing up in Homer, Ohio (a real town), including an episode with his pig-farming uncle who takes Hayes in after he hits rock bottom and clears his head by forcing him to work with the hogs over one long, hot summer.
By the time I started work on The Hunt (Swallow Press), I knew I was ready to parse out Hayes’ fractured relationship with his father. The early attempts didn’t go well, as I tried to chronicle their troubled relationship in flashback form with several overly long passages. Details about childhood, parents, and traumatic events of yore can paint a richer portrait of your character, but I knew that the line between explication and overload is razor thin. Less is almost always more. Here are examples of the right way to do it, from some of the best in the business:
• “Dropping my ashes in my empty teacup, I noticed the arrangement of the leaves. My grandmother would have said it meant money and a dark stranger.” That’s Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, talking about his relative in The Way Some People Die (1951), one of many subtle references to a formative person in Archer’s life—his uncle being another—that Macdonald sprinkled through his short stories and novels. Consider how much it tells us is so few words: his grandmother drank tea and read the leaves afterward, with all that connotes about superstition and prognostication. She also had an eye for things that could mean trouble.
• “[Harry] Bosch watched the squadron of helicopters, like dragonflies from this distance, dodging in and out of the smoke, dropping their payloads of water and pink fire retardant on burning homes and trees. It reminded him of the dustoffs in Vietnam. The noise …” So writes Michael Connelly in the opening of The Black Ice (1993). As Connelly observed in an essay for the 2002 book Writing Mysteries, “In a short eight-word sentence, I was able to deliver characterization through the past without disturbing the forward progress of the story.”
“Mind my asking who that is?” asked Greg.
“And what’s he doing sleeping on the floor of your office?”
“He walked in one afternoon,” I said.
“He killed my wife in Chicago. He feels guilty and depressed.”
“You’re kidding, right?” asked Greg.
“No,” I said.
After re-reading such examples (and more), I went back to the drawing board. I deleted several long flashback passages from The Hunt and with them hundreds of words that, in hindsight, were not just dragging down the narrative but grinding it to a halt at points. For instance: I shrank a three-paragraph-long description of the Parthenon, the bar in fictional Mount Alexandria, Ohio, where Hayes’ father used to drink, down to these four sentences: “I nodded. I knew it. A bar just off the main square. I’d pulled my father out of there more than once, back in the day.”
Relieved of the burden of writing history as opposed to hinting at it, I was free to focus on Hayes’ task at hand—finding a missing prostitute as a serial killer stalks human-trafficking victims. The result, I hope, is a faster-moving story with less baggage and more bang. As Laura Lippman, a genius at the slow unspooling of back story, put it in her 2007 standalone, What the Dead Know:
“A good liar survives by using as little truth as possible, because the truth trips you up far more often.”