I knew a writer who literally could not do backstory. They had a passion for their idea, but they couldn’t ground the fantastic details with any rigor. The plot hinged on a magic rock. The rock came to the US with a pilot, the pilot gave the rock to a father, the father gave it to his son. These were important plot points, but the writer literally could not fill in the backstory.
ME: When does the pilot come to the US?
WRITER: The 1960’s.
ME: Can you be more specific? No? Okay, let’s move on. So the pilot befriends the Dad somehow. In what year does the dad get the rock?
WRITER: Does it matter? It doesn’t come up in the story.
ME: Directly? No. Indirectly? Yes. You’re alleging that this handoff took place. If it happened, there are details. The details establish what the father knows about the rock, the sentimental context he places on the rock, and a slew of other details that might come up.
This conversation went in circles for an hour. The writer refused to commit to a specific date, refused to consider possible ways the handoff could have happened, and seemed dubious that any of this work any value at all.
This is an extreme case of a common problem: the refusal to commit to specifics. Many beginning writers punt on making real decisions. In part, this is because they believe that they don’t really matter. This is incorrect – you need a base reality (or ordinary world) to build on, otherwise you’re building on a shitty foundation. The more variables you have in the first act, the more holes you punch in your reality, the more this will hurt you in the second act.
Take you: you’re not (20’s-30’s) you’re an exact age. You grew up with specific sports heroes, specific pop cultural references. You’re not from somewhere in the midwest, you’re from a specific city, a specific house, a room with walls of a specific color. You are a person.
Characters in bad screenplays are often bad representations of people. They have no goals other than the story goals, and their lack of a backstory translates into a lack of character traits.
You need specifics to make things feel real.
Imagine a man waiting in a long line at a supermarket. Kind of dull. Imagine if that man were Homer Simpson, Don Draper, Tony Soprano. Those characters make it more interesting because they’re specific, we have a rough idea of what they’ll do.
Characters establish themselves through behavior. That behavior is specifically rooted in who they are, what they believe, where they’ve been. If you can’t establish that, you’re missing half off the foundation you need to make their behavior believable and real.
A writer’s ability to do this is based on their general understanding of reality. More on this next time, but first I’m curious to see if anyone specifically disagrees with this idea.