Jerald Walker taught me to think of opening any piece of writing as striking up a conversation with a stranger on a bus. When you’re starting a conversation with a stranger you need to grab their interest quickly, or else the other passengers move away, slowly, not taking their eyes off you.
On a Greyhound bus from New Haven to Boston, the only empty seat was next to an older gentlemen. I’m normally not the most talkative on public transit, but when he saw me eying his Budweiser, he offered me one. I have no way of verifying anything any of the things he told me, but he introduced himself as Rooster, a nickname he got from his time as a trainer for a Bridgeport cockfighting ring. He said the birds were naturally aggressive toward each other, so his job was to hold the rooster down between his legs until it tired of flapping.
I don’t condone cockfighting. It’s barbaric. As an attention grabber though, it certainly got me. It never came up how he got into that line of work. From there he’d gone on to become a shoe shine in an upscale barbershop where the Governor knew him by name.
We chatted for an hour. He was going to a funeral for a friend, and I guess that he needed someone to talk to and I was a warm body. Or maybe he would’ve struck up a conversation with me no matter where he was going. There’s no backstory when you meet a stranger in real life.
Fiction should be the same. Backstory doesn’t make a character believable. The right details do. When Rooster told me his name, he rolled up the sleeve of his coat to show me the rooster tattooed on his forearm. He might’ve been bullshitting me, but that tattoo was enough to convince me that it was for real.
The beer helped his case too. One Budweiser might not give much of a buzz, but the five Rooster gulped down before stuffing them in between his seat and the wall convinced me that he wasn’t the kind of person to worry about the little rules and regulations that governed my life. He wouldn’t be bothered about the legality of cockfighting, though he probably should have been concerned with the morality. Again, there was no indication in our conversation sliding in to explain to me what made Rooster that way. Maybe his family had been oppressed by an overzealous police force. Maybe he followed the rules to a tee until he was fifteen and he was wrongly accused of a crime and decided that if he was going to be punished either way he might as well break them all. He could’ve been born that way. Or it could’ve been something entirely different. The point is that I didn’t need any backstory to tell me who he was. He was showing me.
Good fiction works similarly. Han Solo had no filmed backstory until this year. From 1977 to 2018, film only fans like me were content with Han grifting Obi Wan with what I’d always thought were lies about how fast his ship was and then shooting Greedo (first) to avoid paying off his debts. In the Uncanny X-Men comic, Wolverine joined the team in 1975. His actions defined him with close to no backstory (though it is teased) for almost ten years. That decade that catapulted him into becoming one of Marvel’s most popular characters. Shirley Jackson makes readers wait for nearly the entire novel before she reveal the parts of Merricat’s backstory that have shaped the world of the story even though we’re in Merricat’s point of view.
Backstory is earned. If I’d seen Rooster again, regularly, I might’ve eventually gotten his backstory. It’s earned in fiction too. Han Solo, Wolverine, and Merricat Blackwood all spent significant time earning their way to backstories. If you want your fiction to be any good, your characters need to as well.