It should come as no surprise that I am, as a writer, eternally a pantser. I’m not even quite sure where this blog post is going yet. I just have a general nebulous concept of it, which is, honestly, exactly the way I live my life.
(This moment of silence left intentionally blank, as a buffer so all of my peers can acknowledge that, yes, that seems about right.)
So, backstories! Not to crow my own triumphs, but I’ve often had to suffer the praise of my peers, including the time I spent on world-building and backstories, so here I am to reveal to you my dark secrets: leave the backstory for basically everything as nebulous as possible for as long as you can. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t make big decisions in your story early; you just don’t really need to have the most cohesive reasons why things are the way they are yet.
(To be fair, this is definitely more useful for earlier drafts, as you generally want to start closing loops and answering questions (or rather, choosing which questions you want to answer) the deeper into your drafts you are. Still, this can cut down on your research time in the beginning stages of writing, which is time that can be better put to… writing. Shocking, I know. Also, if you opt to do this, perhaps wait to show your new works to your peers until you have some of those answers, as there’s few things as infuriating to me as asking a friend about a cool thing in their story and receiving no real answer.)
But no, really. The quicker you pin everything down, the less flexible you can be as the story develops, the fewer options you have as you get deeper in. I don’t mean to have no backstory, of course, but tend more to keep it more general than specific until the story demands it. If a character has lost someone important in their past, for instance, the simple fact that you know that can help you write them well enough to start and gives you the freedom to decide how that tragedy occurred as you get further into the story. Same for writing the backstories of your setting; if you need a war, just write knowing there’s a war, and worry about the players in it a little later.
If I had to guess where I got this habit from, I’d probably guess it’s from my time spent making characters for video and tabletop games (which could (and might one day) be an entirely article), as you generally have to leave gaps if you’re crafting a backstory that takes place in someone else’s world. The same, I imagine, is true for fan fiction in ongoing works, as you may have to adapt your characters around changing rules and events in a world that isn’t entirely your own. But you can adapt those same skills to your own writing just as well to help keep your drafts a little more fluid.
The reason I take this approach is simple: the longer you write a story based around a set of concrete, decided facts, the more attached you grow to them, and, in my experience, the first day’s worth of ideas I have on most things are kind of dumb garbage. So, I have to make a choice: take at least a day to do nothing but loosely research and brainstorm an actually good reason for things to be the way they are, or put it on the back burner and keep writing, and trust my brain to work on it as a background process. (To get weirdly meta, that’s definitely the way I finished writing this blog post.)
Maybe this is all a uniquely “me” bit of advice, and if it is, then that’s fair. But if any of this helps any of you out at all, then I’m willing to call the time it took me to write this all worth it.
CJ Miles IV