Psychology in Writing: The Origin Story

Beginnings always seem so important to us.  We humans seem to have an innate interest in origins of things.  This is manifested in science by the pursuit of understanding the origin of the universe through the Big Bang, in religions through the creation of humans, and in biology through the study of our human ancestors.  While at first glance these seem of paramount importance, but the reason we look back is to understand the implications of the present and the future, this is where the real importance is, not where we’ve been but where we are going.  I have found this to be true in both therapy and in writing, while backstory can be helpful it alone does not help to progress things.

Many clients want to seek answers in the past, such as in the classic trope of am I this way because of my mother.  As I noted above, it is a nature disposition, but also helps people deny responsibility for change; if I can find something in my past to blame, I am not responsible for changing.  Because of this denial of responsibility, I find that questions about the origin of issues rarely to be relevant or overly impactful to the work people need to do.  Searching the past tends to hold people back and keep them from moving on.  The problem with talking about the past is it cannot be changed, it’s there, it’s done with, it’s part of who we are at all points forward.  The more important question for our characters and us is where do we want to be and how do we get there, which forces a present and future perspective.  This does not mean that origin is not important, but what we do with it and how we manage it is.

It is helpful to look back to find out what has worked and what has not worked in the past.  If we can identify what has not worked, we don’t need to make the same mistakes again.  In the same way, if we can identify our strengths, then we can build on those to keep moving forward and help us define ourselves in a perspective of power.  In the same way, if we’re stuck and we want change, we can look to our past for ideas of something different we can try to move us from our rut.  Reflecting on and answering these questions can lead to important developmental changes for both our characters and us.

A lot of exposition about backstory and origins can bog down a narrative, especially since most readers want to get into the meat of the story, the why of the character (e.g., motivations).  Writers are often encouraged to know their characters history and back story, but that is to help the writer to understand the character, not for the reader to sift through.  The reader wants to understand where the character is now and how s/he plans to get where s/he wants to go; it is about character growth not historical facts.  A better use of the origin story is through character reactions in the narrative, reflection on how it affects an event in the character’s past affects a moment now.

This can also add depth to the character and keep the reader invested.  Providing specific relevant details about the character’s history instead of providing it all at once it will keep the reader following along to find out more about the character and the why of what they do, which explains the who of the character.  Using this approach to the backstory will can help the writer identify what the relevant details of the character’s past are.  If a part of their origin does not help to move forward a plot point then the reader may not need to know it.

When we are creating characters and worlds for our readers we fall in love with our creations, it’s what pushes us forward to keep writing and sharing.  Being creators, we want to understand everything about the people who populate our world and we want others to care about them the same way.  Just as when we meet a new person, we don’t tell them all the details about ourselves, outlining all of our past and motivations to do things; providing that level of detail would make a person walk off.  People want to get to know whom we are now, and become invested in us before they decide if they want to hear about ourselves.  Our characters should present themselves in the same way, just giving enough of them to make the reader interested and wanting to come back for more.


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