What I Learned from J.R.R.Tolkien, Part 1
Since I write contemporary, realistic YA fiction, it sounds strange that I learned any thing from a fantasy writer. But I did and the first lesson is “Know Your Backstory.”
Mr. Tolkien’s meticulous detail to his backstory may be why I could understand Middle-earth so easily. Most of the backstory wasn’t included in the narrative of his books. It was created either to help Mr. Tolkien keep his world-building straight or in the hope that future artists might expand on some of his stories. Readers would know nothing about his extraordinary creativity if his son Christopher Tolkien hadn’t published the backstory after his father’s death.
Not every novel needs a backstory. I happened to be a writer who writes better whenI know my characters like my closest relatives. I need to understand their basic personalities, like and dislikes, opinions, mannerismas, and any other personal details. Then, as I write, I can pull on that knowledge to make the characters come alive.
For example, if I need a character to make a sarcastic comment, I will not use Merritt Lody, who is fifteen and has a sunny, easy-going personality. He likes to joke but he isn’t sarcastic.
I am working on a mystery novel concerning crimes in the present that are tied to crimes occurring fifty-two and seventy years ago. Because all the crimes happen in the same county and involve several generations of several families, I needed to create family trees. I won’t use all the members I have named to fill out the trees, but going into that detail provides me with wonderful opportunities for inspiration to catch fire.
All the details do not need to appear in my novel and shouldn’t. As I have read in many places books are not dumps where authors unload the characters’ backstories in great heaps. I look on my novel as a recipe with the backstory sprinkled in like spices – just enough to add zest to the plot and characters but not so much that the backstory overpowers the main narrative.
As I wrote this post, I realized I learned another lesson from Mr. Tolkien. I’ll write about that next time.