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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

THE HEROINE'S BACKSTORY--HOW MUCH DO I TELL?



What has made our heroine into the person she became for the purposes of our story? What occurrences in her life have shaped her personality? And how do we decide on the balance between what we, as the writer know about our heroine vs. what the reader needs to know?

Obviously, we don’t have room to tell the reader all that we, the writer must know about her. Nor would the reader be as enthralled with that deluge of information as we are. It’s not necessary for the reader to know every single thing—yet, as writers, one of the hardest parts of creating believable characters is giving them a past, and knowing how much of that history we need to go into.

In my novel, Fire Eyes, one thing we learn about the heroine, Jessica, is that she married young. She thought she was marrying for love, but as it turned out, she grew to understand that she was not in love with Billy, nor he with her—at least, not in the way she had always dreamed of. This is a huge issue with her after Billy dies. She tells Kaed, “The next time I marry, it will be for love.” This shows how much it means to her, because her existence as a single mother is not easy, and the threat of Fallon is still there.

There are many reasons for her to hold onto that dream so tenaciously, but I didn’t have room to talk about in the novel. Her life before Billy was not easy, and marrying Billy was just the ‘icing on the cake.’ But rather than me tell you about Jessica, how about letting her describe her background to you?

My name was Jessica Lea Beckley. That was before I married Billy Monroe, when I was only seventeen. I thought I was in love with Billy. He was handsome in his own way. I was glad when he started courting me, because he was the only boy my father seemed to like. Once he started coming around, it seemed like word got out we were ‘a couple’—and the other boys quit coming by.

That suited Pa just fine though. I was the only girl in a family of boys—four older brothers and one younger. My ma died when Mitch was born, and somehow, Pa always seemed to blame him for it. I had to come between them many, many times. Pa was always heavy-handed. Mitch was determined to prove to Pa that he was worthy. He ran off when he was sixteen. Said he wanted to be a marshal. We never heard from him again. I missed Mitch more than my other brothers. He was always special to me. But Mitch is dead now, killed by Andrew Fallon’s men.

They killed my husband, Billy, too. I did what I could to save him, but he was just hurt too bad. Most of what I did was just making him comfortable as he slipped away. It took him two long days. Even though I didn’t love him, I was sorry for not being able to save him. Something really sad was this. Billy never wanted to be touched—he wanted to do all the touching—what little of it there was between us. How I would yearn for him to just hold me sometimes! But it wasn’t in him. Still, just before he died, he opened his eyes a little and said, “Jessica, would you please just hold my hand awhile?” Even then, I knew I couldn’t touch him the way I wanted to—just pull him close and hold him. I took his hand in mine, and he smiled. It wasn’t long after that, he passed.

Somebody had to bury him, and there was no one but me to do it. Me, two months gone with our baby. But I lost it, too, when I buried Billy. Nearly died myself, from bleeding, but my good friend Rita, and her husband, Wayne, took me in and cared for me.

In an odd twist of fate, after Rita had her baby girl, she was bitten by a copperhead a few weeks later. Wayne waited too long to come for help, and Rita passed. If Wayne had come sooner, I might have saved her. I think he knew it, too. Not long after that, he asked me to marry him. It made sense, me with no husband, him with no wife and trying to care for little Lexi. But I didn’t love him, and he didn’t love me. I had to keep true to my promise I made myself, to only marry for love. A few days later, he showed up at my door with the baby, asking me to take her. I felt sorry for Wayne, but I was glad to see him go. Gladder, still, that he left me precious Lexi.

It was good to leave home. Sometimes I think my pa just wanted me there to cook and clean. I wanted my independence, and maybe I saw Billy as my ticket out of there. I’ve never been back, even though it’s less than a day’s ride from here. Pa was a hard man to deal with, and I was glad to see my older brothers marry and leave, one by one, too.

I’ve always felt bad about not saving Rita and Billy. I’m a healer. Had to learn that, being raised as I was with all those boys. They were always getting hurt somehow. I believe things happen for a reason, though. If I hadn’t gone through those hard years of growing up where I did, I wouldn’t have been able to save Kaed Turner when Standing Bear dumped him on my porch. He was hurt worse than Billy, but he had more to live for. I wasn’t enough for Billy, but to Kaed, I was everything.

Remember when I said that I wouldn’t marry again except for love? Kaed’s the best man I’ve ever known. When I look at him, I see love in his eyes—for me—every time. But more than just the love, I see understanding. And that’s just as important, I’ve learned, because, love can be many things to many people. Kaedon Turner knows my soul as well as my heart. We’ve both suffered loss and despair. But now, we have each other. And when he says, “It’ll come out all right,” I know it’s true.


And now, you know what I knew when I created Jessica Monroe Turner. A lot goes into making up a heroine's personality--a lot that the writer must know about her. This knowledge makes the heroine a well-rounded person to the reader, although you, as the writer, might not be able to include everything. Still, snippets of conversation and insights will provide for a deeper look into the heroine's character. What about your heroines? How did you manage to convey their backstory to the reader?

10 comments:

Tina Donahue said...

How true it is that a writer must know EVERYTHING about her characters before putting one word on the page. Although the readers see only a fraction of what the writer knows, the depth of the knowledge does shape the prose, enriching it and giving the reader a three dimensional view of the characters. Great post, Cheryl!

Sarah J. McNeal said...

Even though you knew so much about Jessica that you couldn't and wouldn't fit into the story, Fire Eyes, she was very clear to me when I read it. With a few written words, I was able to acertain her past and how it affected her. Great blog, Cheryl.

Delaney Diamond said...

Conveying back story is so difficult for me Cheryl. I want to dump in everything because I want the reader to understand the character and their motivations. It's usually when I go through my second draft that I end up having to cut and slice so that I don't give too much and bore people.

I try to sprinkle in the details through a combination of two or three of the following: dialogue, flashbacks, and internal thoughts.

Fiona McGier said...

What an interesting post. Yes, we all know so much about our characters because before we "give life" to them in words, they exist only in our heads. How to convey all that we know about them, to make them interesting to a reader, is a real challenge. Hopefully one that we all get better and better at doing as we go along!

Cheryl Pierson said...

Hi Tina,

Thanks so much--glad you enjoyed the post! Yes, we have to know so much about our characters it's no wonder we think of them as real people!
Cheryl

Cheryl Pierson said...

AW, SARAH! Thanks so much, girl! You are always so supportive. I appreciate you.
Cheryl

Cheryl Pierson said...

Hi Delaney,
I think that is hard for everyone! I want the reader to know my characters right off the bat too. It's a fine line, isn't it? Thanks so much for stopping by!
Cheryl

Cheryl Pierson said...

Hi Fiona,
That is the challenge, for sure! The good thing is, the more we write, the better we get at it. Thanks so much for reading and commenting--I'm glad you enjoyed the post.
Cheryl

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Cheryl,
As long as the back story isn't an info dump that the reader will skip over, or if it can't be shown through the character's actions and reactions, and that knowledge moves the story forward then I put it in, although the info is scattered as situations come up. Backstory is tough, and like many newbie writers, when I first started I had all my backstory up front in one big info dump. It's like you said backstory is one of those writing craft skills that get better the more we do it.

Cheryl Pierson said...

Hi Kathy,
You are so right--I can't deal with the info dump, either! LOL (Doesn't everyone do that when they start out?) Thanks for commenting!
Cheryl