As a science fiction writer, I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about world-building. It’s my job to craft a believably unbelievable world for my characters to inhabit and my readers to experience. This world provides the backdrop for my story, the history of my civilizations, the infrastructure within which my characters must operate, and plenty of material from which to generate conflict.
There’s much to consider when constructing a mythical, magical, or futuristic world, and one important factor is the foundation myth or backstory for that world. Each of your characters will have a backstory – important moments from their personal experience that make them behave the way they do and have shaped them into the people we meet on the page. But what I’m talking about today is the greater backstory or mythology that informs the current state of affairs in your world.
When fans were first introduced to Star Wars Episode IV (a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…), we were dumped straight into a battle scene. One large ship ruthlessly chased down another, boarded it, and killed the crew. An intimidating villain, using seemingly magical powers, then captured a princess! We all knew there was more to this story, and we eagerly anticipated learning bits and pieces of the mythology and backstory as they were revealed over the course of the first trilogy.
Here are some things to think about as you weave backstory or mythology into your own stories:
What does the writer need to know?
Much more than you’ll ever use in the novel. Build the backstory for yourself in detail, but recognize that you may only sprinkle some of it into the tale. If you know the backstory in detail, you’ll be able to work the important parts into the live action with consistency and color.
What does the reader need to know?
Not nearly as much as you, the writer. At least, not right away. On a recent panel I moderated, one of the fantasy writers suggested thinking about mythology and backstory like an iceberg. Readers see only the tip, but they know much more remains submerged beneath the surface. It’s our job as writers to strategically drop enticing bits in as they become relevant to the story. Avoid the info dump. Readers should turn the pages in anticipation, not skip chunks of boring history.
When do they need to know it?
When it’s relevant to the story. Allow readers to discover elements of backstory as the characters do. Use these elements to create tension, drama, and “aha” moments. I’m sure George Lucas knew all along that Darth Vader was Luke’s father, but he saved that reveal for a truly memorable moment. Find the moments in your story where bringing something to light from the past will have the most impact. Use backstory information strategically.
How does backstory impact current events?
If your backstory or mythology has no relationship to your immediate story, then there is really no point to including it. The main characters should bump right up against it. The Jedi order has been decimated, but the force is strong in the Skywalker family. Destiny calls Luke. Ask yourself where and how the past collides with the present in your novel. These are the spots where pieces of backstory will contribute to the effectiveness of the whole.
Because science fiction and fantasy stories tend to be epic in scope, readers realize there’s probably a good backstory involved. Weaving that backstory or mythology into the current plot action, and using it to create dramatic tension, is part of your job as a writer.