When Chris Tebbets and I sent in the first draft of the manuscript for M or F?, we were pretty excited. We were strangers before we began the project, but working together had bonded us. We had a similar sense of humor and quirky way of looking at things, and we started to think of ourselves as “brain twins.” Unsurprisingly, our two main characters were best friends, and also thought of themselves as brain twins. Chris and I had come up with a fun, rollicking plot based loosely on Cyrano de Bergerac, and we had written funny scenes and great dialog. I, frankly, expected a rave from the editor. Instead, what I got back was, “I just don’t feel that these two characters are best friends. What’s their history?”
The best editors see what we cannot see for ourselves. In modeling Marcus and Franny’s friendship on our own, Chris and I had failed to realize one thing: we did not have a shared history. The book had brought us together. We were new friends, not old friends. Marcus and Franny were supposed to be old friends, at least, older than the few months that Chris and I had known each other. But how do you do this? How can you craft a an authentic friendship with a sense of history without clogging up the words with pointless backstory?
Chickum is a joke that about ten good friends of mine understand. I won’t bother explaining it; you won’t think it’s funny. I didn’t come up with it, but every time I read it, I crack up. All I have to do is see a rubber chicken, and I giggle. We all have jokes and shared memories like this—moments that can be referenced in shorthand between good friends. For M or F?, Chris and I had to take the time to create funny and/ or poignant shared memories for Marcus and Franny. We had to come up with in-jokes. We had to know their history, not so that we could explain it in overwrought backstory, but so that we could reference it the way that real friends do. (“Remember the time—?” “Don’t say it.” “Double monkey.” “You said it! You said it! I hate you!” And so on. Teenagers can have conversations like this for hours.)
Sometimes, I wonder why I should bother writing a particular character’s backstory. (I never want to do it–I always want to move forward, forward!) But the answer always comes back to texture and authenticity. In the final version of M or F?, Franny and Marcus were believable as good friends because we took the time to create the history of their friendship. If you’re looking for a way to get inside your character’s relationships, start with memories. These moments don’t even need to appear in the manuscript–many of of the ones Chris and I worked on did not. But like the proverbial iceberg, the part that does not show is the part that holds up everything else.
For further reading:
Here’s a great article from Writer’s Digest about making backstory seamless.