What we’re writing: Hallie on characters and their back stories

The winner of the clear puzzle from yesterday's post is Riley!!! Email Jenn and jennmck at yahoo dot com and she'll mail your prize! Congrats!

HALLIE EPHRON: Something I learned early on (from feedback to a rejected manuscript) was the importance of the main character’s back story. I’m fond of quoting the editor who offered this sage advice:
“I need to care about what happened to the character before the book started and what’s going to happen after the book ends.”

Of course this comes on top of apparently conflicting advice from writing instructors: DO NOT load the front of the novel with back story. Or as I tell my students, "avoid the back story dump.”

To reconcile the two caveats, I’m constantly thinking about my character’s back story… even when I’m not revealing it to the reader. It's the key to understanding why a character reacts in surprising ways -- past experiences cast a potent shadow

In a novel it often works best to wait until the reader is invested enough in the characters to care about their past. Then to reveal that back story gradually and strategically.

I'm struggling with that now.

A character I’m writing is based on a real person. She was a writer (call her Suzanne) whose husband died of cancer shortly before she gave birth to their second child (a daughter, call her Thea).

Soon after Thea’s birth, Suzanne was at home and a friend dropped by. Suzanne invited her in and offered her some tea and cookies. Suzanne seemed fine until the friend asked if she could take a peek at the baby.

Suzanne gave her a blank look. What baby?

Fortunately, the friend heard baby Thea crying. It turned out she was one the floor in the attic, swaddled in a blanket. Who knew how long she’d been there.

Somehow, Suzanne’s friend got help for Suzaqnne and baby Thea. 

By the time I knew Thea, she was in high school. Living with her mother and older brother and her grandparents. I don’t know how she knew about that early abandonment, but she did. I can only imagine how it must have hovered over her relationship with her mother.

So the story I have in mind has a fictional Thea as the main character. 

Though I was never abandoned, her experience speaks to me because I had a complicated relationship with my mother. My mother never physically tucked me in the attic and tried to forget about me, but still I can relate to the scars that would leave. It's something I'm interested in exploring through my writing.

I think that as fiction writers, we often work our own past traumas and experiences into the back stories of our characters. Even my villains have parts of me, experiences that echo my own, that shape who they are. Experiences that (I hope) make them believable.

Isn’t that the essence of, WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW?

Today’s question: When you read a novel, do you sometimes wonder what experiences the author may have had that fed the development of a character?

And in case anyone is looking for more (hopefully not contradictory) advice for their own writing… I’ll be teaching a week-long, 2-hour morning class in Key West: HOW TO CREATE A COMPELLING PROTAGONIST. REGISTER, class size is limited. C’mon down! https://tskw.org/create-a-compelling-protagonist-with-hallie-ephron/