by Deborah Elliott-Upton
Monday night I spent an evening with Maya Angelou. Okay, so it wasn’t just the two of us. It was the two of us and about another couple of thousand, give or take a few. Listening to her, it seemed as if the two of us were having a conversation and it was her turn to speak. I forgot I was in a crowded basketball court-turned-auditorium until the crowd would laugh, cry or applaud along with me. I expected her to share some of her poetry and anecdotes of her famous friends along the journey her 81 years have led. I didn’t expect she would burst into song at various intervals or for tears to blur my vision while she spoke of being raped by her mother’s boyfriend when she was eight or that she’d stopped talking from then until she was thirteen. How can any of us realize another’s heartaches until we are told?
Ms. Angelou’s web site bio reports: Maya Angelou is an accomplished poet, an award-winning writer, a journalist, an activist, a performer, a dancer, an actress, a director, and a teacher. All of these make her who she is now.. Due to her background, I didn’t expect her to be funny, but she is. At the program, she said, “Don’t trust anyone who doesn’t laugh.” With a tilt to her head, she said serious people go around saying they aren’t laughing because they are serious. Ms. Angelou said, “I don’t know how serious they are, but they sure are boring as hell.” I think she has a point. Humor gets us through a lot of tough times and serious people are often total bores.
In retrospect, the most engaging people (and fictional characters) are the ones whose background is a bit checkered, a bit skewed, perhaps a bit out of the ordinary. Consider Indiana Jones. This character is a true swashbuckler (even handling a sword occasionally). My favorite Indiana Jones adventure is “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” The reason? The audience is given a glimpse of the Whys? of Indiana’s characterization in the earlier films. We learn where Indiana got his name, why he hates snakes and why he’s so involved with finding artifacts from history, especially those of a religious significance. As James mentioned in a recent column, background and backstory are not interchangeable. Both add to the reasons why characters behave in the manner they do and make the time the reader spends absorbed into the story more enjoyable.
Does too much background or backstory get in the way of the plot or the pacing? It can, but done right, both add to the reasons why characters behave the way they do and give credence to a reader’s suspended belief in a make-believe world.
When I asked a dear friend if she would go back in time and not marry the man who was controlling, abusive and left her alone to fend with debt and three small children under the age of six, she said simply, “No. If I didn’t go through all that, I wouldn’t realize how fortunate I am now to find a good job to support my family and a good man to share a life with. I wouldn’t have become as strong a woman as I am now. I owe that to having been married to him, even if it was rotten and horrible and ten years too long of a ten-year marriage. I also wouldn’t have learned how to laugh at how awful it was when I served green bean soup made from a can of vegetables and catsup that no one wanted to eat, but did because we were hungry and it was all we had.”
“Backstory” is an invented word. It was invented to describe important events or character details that are not inherently part of a story, but which silently inform the story.” – James Lincoln Warren (Criminal Brief, April 27, 2009)
If I wrote a story about my friend, I wouldn’t have to tell the entire story of her life to show her strength came from hard times; I could merely recount a scene where she and her children forced down Green Bean Soup and then licked the bowl. If I wrote of a reluctant hero, would I need to tell though he was a conscientious objector to war, he could lead an army to victory? Not the entire story, but yes, the background would help cement the reasons for his choices during wartime. If I wrote about an African-American woman who became a mentor, would I need mention she was one because she had one herself?
I’m a firm believer in passing forward what we learn from others. Sometimes this is a lesson we’ve learned from mistakes we’ve made or unfortunate circumstances inflicted upon us. Sometimes, we overcome obstacles instead of becoming crippled by them. Sometimes to get to the future, we have to retell the past.