Monday, October 3, 2011

Getting to Know You

Do you know the song, Getting to Know You? It was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein and first sung by Deborah Kerr in the 1956 production of The King and I. Julie Andrews sang it in the 2006 remake. “Getting to know you. Getting to know all about you. Getting to like you. Getting to hope you’ll like me.”            

In “real” life, people get to know us and we get to know them gradually. We all have a back story, a history that’s contributed to making us who we are. When we meet someone, we learn the basic information about them quickly but it takes a bit of time to really get to know them. How do they think? What are their dreams? What makes them tick? Why do they say and do what they say and do?

In time, we learn those things about people we get close to and become friends with and we tend to forgive them their shortcomings because we understand and care about them. However, most people we meet never acquire that status in our lives; they are acquaintances and we know very little about them. On some level, we may make a judgment. We may think “I hate running into Suzanne; she never stops talking,” or “Jack gets on my last nerve; he always has to be the center of attention.” If we knew people’s back story, we might not be so quick to jump to conclusions.

For example, what if you knew that Suzanne had never married; she’d devoted her life to taking care of her severely mentally ill sister and the only time she got a break (or a chance to talk with someone who was capable of understanding her) was when she ran out to the store or the post office? And, what about Jack? What if you found out that, when he was growing up, as the middle child of ten, his parents were too busy to give him any attention. Do you feel at least a smidgen of compassion for the two of them now? Do you have a better understanding of why they are the way they are?

That’s why I chose to give each of the important characters in my novels a back story. I want readers to understand why each character does what he/she does and what part their pasts play in determining who they are. Of course, it’s crucial to keep readers involved in the present story; the goal, after all, is to hold their interest and compel them to keep reading. Every writer does that differently; I prefer to blend it into the story. As I write, I get to know my characters well and I want my readers to get to know them too.

17 comments:

  1. "Getting to Know You" is one of my favorites, Patricia, and I like how you apply its lesson to life and to fiction. It's important to respect our characters--all of them, not just the nice ones--as genuine people and not as stereotypes.

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  2. Great topic! We have to remember, as writers, that not only do our characters have to behave rationally, but that somehow we have to convey the backstory to explain that behavior. I think that's one of the essential skill sets that writers have to develop.

    Bill
    www.williamdoonan.com

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  3. You never know where someone came from until you walk a mile in their shoes. I like knowing everyone's history. However, I am quick to jump to conclusions about someone and find the negativity. It's easier for me to think about how someone "bothers me" more than I think about how they can "teach me" about myself.

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  4. John and William,
    I feel like I've been "getting to know" both of you and several of the other Posse members. It's been great!
    Jennifer, I can be quick to jump to conclusions myself and I'm trying really hard not to do that. There's usually a reason for a person's behavior and/or words.

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  5. Well done. Many new writers don't care about backstory -- they don't see its importance. If they read your blog today, they would understand why it makes a difference. Even if you don't use a lot of the background information, it will color how you treat that character.
    Thanks for a good read.

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  6. Thanks, James!
    Not to diminish the importance of plot, setting, etc. but, let's face it, we wouldn't have a story without the characters.

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  7. Patricia, great blog, you are so right as the others before me, its important not to jump to conclusion...if the plot can hold its own, then you have me, but when I get lost (in translation) many times I'm done, unless I understand the background. As much as I love Agatha Chrisite...I have problem with her archrival (aka) Mary Westmacott...I do not enjoy the writing. Anybody out there ever ran across anything like this? Augie

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  8. Executing "backstory" is a dilemma every author faces. Beginners "frontload" narrative by introducing all the info too early. I did this very weird experiment: I took 10 mysteries off my shelf, found where backstory started, added and divided to come up with a "mean" or average and voila! Backstory should show up at about page 50.

    Call me crazy, but it's a rule I adhere to. Whatever makes you sleep at night, right?

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  9. Hi: Backstory is a tough one and I'm glad you chose that subject for your blog. I write thrillers so it's important for me to hold down back story and introduce it only in one or two sentence bites. The lesson I've learned is not to give the readers any more back story than absolutely necessary for that particular scene.
    It's a particular challenge when writing a series. You have to give new readers to your series enough back story so they know the character but no so much to bore readers who have read previous novels. Tricky and a great subject for a blog. Thanks.

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  10. It occurs to me that much mystery fiction involves murder that comes out of long-festering grudges and resentments. To better understand that murder we need to know the past. This is the case in A STUDY IN SCARLET, and it's the case in my new book BEHIND THE REDWOOD DOOR. But the past should reveal itself in the course of the present tale.

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  11. As you say, Pat, back story should blend in--gradually. Dump in too much, too soon and you lose the flow of your narrative.

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  12. Sunny,
    I agree with your statement regarding back story, "Whatever makes you sleep at night." I've read your first novel (the second one should be here Friday) and obviously the formula you use works for you; it was a really good read.

    Thanks for your comments, Augie and Don!

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  13. John and JR,
    Good points! Each of us "walks a fine line" when we decide how to handle back story.

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  14. Great post, Patricia. An interesting back story can give a novel extra depth and realism.

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  15. Thanks, Erin. That's exactly how I feel.

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  16. Hi Patricia, I realized a little late in the game that my first novel is the complete backstory for my protagonist, Daisy Muniz, who is starting her first jaunt as a sleuth! I would love to trade Broadway show tunes with you! I was raised on them! Lovely!

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  17. Theresa,
    We all realize some things "a little late in the game" but I think the most important thing is that we do realize (and act on) them.
    I think it's fantastic that you are going to have Daisy be the protagonist in your first Latina mystery. I'm looking forward to reading it.

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