THE HEROINE’S BACKSTORY–HOW MUCH DO WE NEED TO 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?

To order Fire Eyes or any other Cheryl Pierson short story or novel, visit Amazon at the link below:

http://www.amazon.com/Cheryl-Pierson/e/B002JV8GUE/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0

Cheryl Pierson
A native Oklahoman, I've been influenced by the west all my life. I love to write short stories and novels in the historical western and western romance genres, as well as contemporary romantic suspense! Check my Amazon author page to see my work: http://www.amazon.com/author/cherylpierson
I live in Oklahoma City with my husband of 40 years. I love to hear from readers and other authors--you can contact me here: fabkat_edit@yahoo.com
Follow me on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/cheryl.pierson.92
https://petticoatsandpistols.com/sweepstakesrules

35 Comments

  1. What a moving backstory, Cheryl. Jessica becomes so real the way you write it. One reason I enjoy writing a series, like the one that ends with THE WIDOWED BRIDE, is that the backstory is already there. In other books I tend to just weave it in as I go, avoiding too much too early. And I like it when I can save some surprises for later in the book.
    Thanks for a very thoughtful blog. And you know how much I love that cover.

  2. Hi Elizabeth!

    I know a lot of people like to use character interviews to try to flesh out their characters, but to me, writing this little essay with Jessica as the speaker was more revealing because I was just in her thoughts and memories. I’ve always wanted to do a series, because of what you mention–just being able to weave in the backstory gradually and having those surprises come up later in the story. Thanks again for the kind words on the cover. I love it too.
    Hugs,
    Cheryl

  3. I tend to only include snippets here and there to explain certain behaviors or thoughts. Although in my latest release I had to have the heroine reflect on how she arrived at her current predicament because it was a series of events. Then, of course, there’s the flashback. I use that in a different story. I think it really depends on the story. The joy of writing! 🙂

  4. Hi Cheryl! I’m reading a really old book right now. It was written in the 1940s and is about a Pittsburgh steel family. The authors takes *chapters* to set up the conflicts, yet it’s not back story . . . it’s just . . . living? That’s how it feels with your heroine. We’re living in her skin. Thank you for the insights!

  5. Cheryl, I love this.
    I often think of backstory as ‘burning a hole in my pocket’
    I know all this stuff about my characters, and an author NEEDS to know it because it forms all the choices the character makes. but we don’t write down all the details, we just have the characters act as they would considering the fires that forged them.
    I like the idea of putting backstory here on our blog.
    🙂
    We all know that overuse of backstory….what I call a backstory dump….grinds the action in a book to a halt. So I use it so sparingly that sometimes, I’m afraid I go too far.
    An interesting tidbit. In my first book Petticoat Ranch, the hero and heroine have twin sons in the last pages of the book. And they name them Clifton and Jarrod.
    Well, Cliff was the deceased brother of the hero and that is well known, but Jarrod is the hero’s father’s name. Which I mentioned earlier in the book. the hero’s father is dead and is only mentioned in passing a few times.
    In the editing process, with me trying to cut out the action stopping backstory, I’d cut out the hero’s father’s name completely. Something I didn’t realize until I read the book myself after it was on the bookstore shelves. So no one would even guess they named the second boy Jarrod after his grandfather.
    Only I knew.
    I cut too deep.

  6. I revealed the back story of my heroine, Katie O’Reilly, from my novel, Confederate Rose, in snippets as was necessary. Most of it happens in things the hero discovers slowly as he gets to know her. She’s a Confederate soldier, but uses a male identity. The first time the hero sees her, he thinks she’s a boy, but quickly learns she’s a woman. But he doesn’t learn she was a widow and had lost an unborn child until much later in the story.

  7. Nice post and great excerpt. I don’t usually like first person, and don’t write it, but yours flows nicely.

    Rie

  8. Hi Emma,
    I love flashbacks! I know a lot of people don’t like to use them when they write, but I find I always have a flashback somewhere in my story. Sometimes there is just no other way of showing it when there is a series of events that have to be told. Thanks so much for coming by.
    Cheryl

  9. Hi Cheryl,

    I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Jessica. Your cover artist used such a compelling picture that I think absolutely captured the essence of a strong but vulnerable young woman.

    I enjoy your contemporary writing but your historicals are right in the zone.

    I own this book folks. Its great!!!

    Maggie
    On the Nickel available for preorder through Amazon
    http://www.maggietoussaint.com

  10. Hi Vicki,

    I enjoy those kinds of books like you are talking about–sometimes, the older books that take longer to set things up seem so good because they build slowly. When I wrote this little thing for Jessica, things came out that I didn’t know were there. I thought I should have done one for Kaed, the hero, too.
    Cheryl

  11. Oh Mary, you and I have the same problem! LOL I couldn’t have said that better–“burning a hole in my pocket.” You just want everyone to know everything about the characters on one hand, but on the other hand, you know you can’t do that. Else there would be no story to tell. What a shame that you cut that part out inadvertently about the hero’s father’s name. And you know, you can just read and edit and read and edit, and still things like that get by you. I wrote a story once where the guy comes downstairs carrying his rifle. Then, he gets to the bottom of the stairs and “picked up his rifle from where it stood.” I bet I had read that 100 times, and never caught it until one day it just “clicked.”
    Cheryl

  12. Susan, that is really great. I like the fact that he finds that out later in the story. If you had told it at the beginning, it would have explained too much about her behavior that he needed to learn slowly. Very masterful.
    Cheryl

  13. Hi Rie! Great to see you over here! I don’t usually write first person, either. I just did this as a kind of character “fleshing out” exercise. And I learned so much about her that I really wished I had gone back and done that for the other characters. I have started doing it since then. It really helps, oddly, being in first person to write this kind of stuff. I have only written one story in first person–a short story for A MYSTERY SUSPENSE COLLECTION that just came out this month through Victory Tales Press. It really worried me, because I don’t usually read a lot of first person, and had never written it. I enjoyed it, though! Thanks so much for your kind words.
    Cheryl

  14. Hi Cheryl,

    I really love this post. I am in the process of writing my second book. I know a lot about both the hero and heroine, but they are still hiding things from me. I have done an interview with my characters in letter form, to give them the freedom to come out and talk, because a lot of times people will say things on paper that they won’t to your face. It has worked well. I love what you have done with the essay that you wrote. Thank you for sharing.

    Happy writing.

    Micole Black

  15. Hey Cheryl, like others above, I tend to blend it in when it becomes pertinent to the story, often in dialogue. I love dialogue! My first novel, though, is nearly 1/3 flashback, which sounds bad, but readers loved it. LOL

    That’s the nice thing about your books: it’s obvious you truly know your characters. 🙂

  16. Hi Cheryl, love the first person! Good job. I love backstory…but like Elizabeth said, it must be woven through the main story. Once in a while I come across something poorly edited where the backstory comes in a big chunk, usually the first chapter, like it’s a Wikipedia biography or something.

    It’s nice to have some backstory surprizes later on, too. Very cool post today oxoxoxox.

  17. I love your blog, so I’ve awarded you the Versitle blog award on my blog. http://wordsharpeners.wordpress.com/2011/03/23/versitle-blogger-award/

  18. Hi Cheryl, thanks for your post–and for sharing some of Jessica’s story with us. Knowing how much backstory to include–and when to include it–can be tricky at times. I don’t know if I always get it right but I keep trying.

  19. Hi Cheryl, I read Fire Eyes and loved it. Jessica is the strong heroine with a tender heart and big dreams. I enjoyed reading about her again. http://www.monarisk.com

  20. Hi Micole,
    I agree with you! MOST times, people will say things on paper that they would never say to your face–even our characters. LOL Good luck with book 2, and thanks for coming by and commenting. I appreciate your kind words!
    Cheryl

  21. Hi LK!!!
    Oh, I love flashbacks! I think readers do too, as long as it’s done well–and of course, you do it VERY well. Thanks so much for the compliment–I still get surprised from time to time with my characters and what they do, say, and their previous lives before the story started.
    Cheryl

  22. Hi, Cheryl!Everytime I read one of your posts–on anything–I learn something. That’s the teacher in you, I’m sure. Writing down backstory in the voice of the heroine is a perfect idea–even though you might be doing it for yourself–for it paints a clear picture of Jessica. Truly, I have written a story or two in which I really did not know my own character. I remember Jessica well from FIRE EYES–she is a wonderful character. Thanks–Celia

  23. TANYA!
    You are so right. And it’s hard, when there is a lot of backstory that needs to be told, to hold back and weave it in judiciously throughout rather than just pop it on the reader all in chapter 1. LOL Thanks so much for your comments!
    I know you are very busy with all the contracts you got!
    Cheryl

  24. Tamera! How nice! Thanks so much–I’m going to check it out!
    Cheryl

  25. Margaret,
    You do a fantastic job! Thanks so much for your comments. Jessica was one of my favorite heroines. I didn’t know her entire story until I sat down and wrote this little essay–it really helped me to do that.
    Cheryl

  26. Mona,
    Thank you so much–that is so sweet of you to say. I loved Jessica, too, because she was just so alone and trying to raise Lexi by herself–that would have just scared me to death back in those days. She was very strong, but when Kaed came along and she lost her heart to him, it was just what she needed.
    Cheryl

  27. CELIA,
    THANK YOU so much. That is really sweet of you, and I appreciate all your support. I’m so glad you enjoyed Jessica. She is one of my favorites I’ve ever written, and I think you must like her because of all the strong heroines you write in your stories.
    Hugs,
    Cheryl

  28. Hey Cheryl. Great blog. I guess we know more about our characters than we will ever tell. But working them out and knowing about them makes them real and easier to write.

  29. Knowing that I love to have as much information as possible about the back story, if I were an author
    I would most likely chase away my readers with TMI.

    Pat Cochran

  30. Hey Sarah!
    Yes, we sure do! If we told it “all” probably no one would be interested by the time we got finished with the book. LOL But you’re right, once we know them ourselves, we can tell the important stuff.
    Cheryl

  31. Hi Pat,
    You sound like me–I always want to know everything. So I guess it’s a good thing to learn to hold back on some of the info that we, as writers, know–but that might not be quite as fascinating to our readers.

    Thanks so much for commenting!
    Cheryl

  32. Avatar

    As a reader, I like to get to know the characters a bit through their actions and interactions before too much background information is given. That gives me a chance to form impressions and start asking questions. When that happens, I can better appreciate the backstory or flashback because it will explain an action or answer a question.

    Elizabeth Lane’s CHRISTMAS MOON gives you most of the back story you need right at the beginning of the story. You know the heroines situation and why she is in it. You know about the hero because she is doing a research paper on him and interviewing someone about him. In this story it works perfectly. With that out of the way, the story can be about the developing relationship without having to worry all those other details.

    I am reading Jennifer Blake’s Master of Arms series. (It takes place in New Orleans, 1840s, and we were headed there for a vacation) Reasons for actions are alluded to or you are just left hanging. It holds your attention and adds to the suspense. It keeps you guessing and speculating on the reasons for actions and events. All the characters have secrets. Since this is a series (as of now 6 books), the back story is there in reference to the sword masters and with most characters being in all of the books to one degree or another. She does a good job of giving you just enough information just when you need it.

    I guess it all depends on the writer, the story, and the characters. Use what works best for you and the story you are writing. We as readers appreciate it.

  33. Patricia,
    I always enjoy reading your comments because you give so many details and information. Now I must read Jennifer Blake’s series–that sounds wonderful–and of course Elizabeth’s book as well! Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I appreciate that!
    Cheryl

  34. Cheryl, you are so right. As a reader, I dislike it when huge paragraphs are dedicated to information I think must be important and then it never appears again. It is a challenge to give readers what they need without dumping information in their laps that they neither need nor want. I often write pages of background for my characters but little of it winds up in the actual book. Writing the background from the character’s POV is an interesting idea. I will have to try that. It offers a more personal insight and clarifies what bits are important enough to share.

  35. Hi Cheryl,
    I agree with you that writing in first person can be tricky. However, when done well, it’s possible to learn more about the character than several chapters of narrative can reveal…her dialect, level of education and personal outlook to name a few. You did a great job of “writing with strings” as I call it (as in handling a marionette) and allowing Jessica to describe herself.
    Micki

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