Monday, November 2, 2009

Close Third and Backstory

One of the theories on how to handle a narrator is to write in what we call close third person. The idea behind this approach is to write so that the reader is so close to the action that it is as if he is the one experiencing the action. The reader sees through the character’s eyes and has access to his thoughts. It’s a good theory, but it presents a real problem when we begin to consider backstory.

All characters have a backstory, but we try to avoid telling the readers, unless it becomes part of the story. When the backstory is part of the story, it is called a flashback. When it isn’t—well, it just isn’t a very good thing to do. But here’s the problem. For a reader to truly experience the story as the principal character experiences it, the reader needs to know the backstory. If the reader doesn’t know the backstory then we have a Quantum Leap situation in which the reader is jumping into the body of someone else with no idea what has happened to the person before the jump.

There’s a couple of ways to solve this problem. One is to forget about this close third person concept and tell the story from a removed position. Instead of the reader being in the character’s head, we can put he narrator in the character’s head and leave it at that. That’s the approach that most books take, but it doesn’t put the reader as close to the character as some people think the reader should be.

The other approach is to provide enough backstory that the reader understands the character and is able to predict the character’s actions before they occur. This is the worst idea of the two, but if you want to stay true to the idea of putting the reader in the story, it’s what you’re stuck with. So, maybe there isn’t a perfect answer, whatever we come up with, but rather a tradeoff in what we decide to do.