There are times in every fiction writer’s life when they fantasize about writing one of those experimental novels that boldly go against all literary tradition—for example, a novel without characters, because characters are difficult, complicated imaginary beings. They often arrive in our stories flat and empty, and stubbornly refuse to become interesting no matter how much effort we put into them.
Sometimes characters fill out and become interesting through the organic process of telling the story and giving them something to do. Sometimes they never rise above the mechanics of their plot roles. When the latter happens, you can end up with a terrific story that has a surprising and interesting plot but no believable people to make your reader care about that plot.
Or, sometimes, you have the opposite scenario: Characters who pop off the page or screen as living, breathing personalities you’re certain your readers will want to spend time with, but your story meanders pointlessly. In either case, one way to jolt things into working order is to step away from the main plot and write up some history.
The Secret Histories
Recently George R.R. Martin broke hearts and shattered minds when he announced that he might not get The Winds of Winter out the door this year, but 2018 would see the publication of 2 Game of Thrones-related works, one being a history of Westeros called Fire and Blood. While fans tore their shirts over the steady delay of the sixth A Song of Ice and Fire book, I wonder if Martin needed to step back from his story to write that history as an exercise.
A history of your fictional world, or biographies of your fictional characters, don’t ever have to see the light of day. But they can clarify motivations, codify patterns of behavior, and give you heaps of material that inform your characters, fleshing them out, and give you hints as to where your story needs to go. History repeats, so if your secret histories yield up some interesting Noodle Incident, maybe bringing it into the main plot will move your story past your block.
A secret history or biography could be a few paragraphs jotted down, a complete other book-length work, or something in-between. I used to write lengthy histories of my epic fantasy universes, often with a brusque, academic tone, simply seeking to get ideas on paper, and it worked wonders for convincing myself that my fictional universe was real, and the characters I’d populated it with were living, breathing folks.
Next time you’re struggling, step back and write a history. And then pour yourself a drink. Not for any particular reason, just because drinking is fun.