Sunday, 13 December 2015

Back Story and Angst - How Much is Too Much?

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I have touched on this subject before, in relation to conflict within a romance. But I thought it was a topic worth visiting in depth.

It is a tendency of newer writers – myself included way back when – to give their hero and heroine rather convoluted and angst-ridden back stories. It is, after all, how we gain sympathy for them and get the reader on their side. Even now I will often make my heroines orphans just because it's a quick way to establish her need to love and be loved.

In Dickens times, such angst was the staple of the novels he wrote in serial form. Poor little Oliver Twist was born in a workhouse, treated abominably by the people who were supposed to care for him, and then walked all the way to London alone, before being taken up by Fagin and his gang and terrorised by Mr Monk and Bill Sykes. He had a lot of angst to go through before he found his happy ending. Despite that, Dickens managed to include humour and to keep Oliver resolutely cheerful and hopeful, albeit in a ‘pathetic urchin’ way.

Too many modern authors, particularly of romance, take their characters’ angst to the nth degree. In workshops I often tell the story of a novel that I read where, in the first three paragraphs, the heroine (speaking in the first person) tells how she was born to a crack whore, had a drug-dealing father who died in a hail of bullets, was sexually abused in various foster homes, had some crap love affairs, before, by the fourth paragraph, suddenly turning up in a bright modern building meeting the handsome billionaire who was, supposedly, going to make all this right for her.

As I started to laugh (sorry) it reminded me of an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where Buffy’s watcher, Giles (played by the eternally gorgeous Anthony Stewart Head) had been away for a while. Buffy fills him in on all the horrible things that have happened since he went away. Giles’s response was the same as mine to the above novel. He burst out laughing and soon Buffy was laughing with him. Because it was ludicrous that anyone could survive that much misery.

When I started to write I was guilty of exactly the same thing. I gave my heroines the most pathetic back stories imaginable. The problem with doing that is that by the end of the novel, all that has to be solved. And in this day and age, the hero cannot be the one to do that. The heroine has to do it herself. My own preference is to make the hero the reward for the heroine solving her problems, not the answer to them.

The main problem with giving the heroine too much angst to begin with is that it can create a rather maudlin story, as she tries to come to terms with it all. When we write light romance, or even slightly darker romance such as Rebecca, we are not writing Angela’s Ashes. Our readers know our heroines may have suffered, but they don’t want to be dragged down into a mire where they feel like slashing their own wrists. A romance is a fantasy, and it’s hard to create a fantasy out of constant death and despair.

Of course, people in real life do survive the most dreadful tragedies. But the most upbeat woman I have ever met was an elderly lady whose daughter and son-in-law had been murdered by a mentally unstable neighbour. Even when she told me, she didn’t cry, but she was concerned that the man who killed them was about to be up for parole (he didn’t get out). Despite that, she’d laugh and joke and get on with life, chatting to everyone on our street as she walked the mile and a half into town every single day. Everyone knew her, and everyone smiled when she passed by. I remember her telling me how much she loved Kojak, followed by her saying, ‘Who loves ya, baby’, which had me in fits of giggles (you probably had to be there).

Did she cry a lot of tears when her daughter and son-in-law died? I'm sure she must have. And I'm sure there would be times when she cried in the privacy of her own home. But the face she showed to the world was one of courage and resolute good humour.

I think of her when I’m writing my heroines, so that no matter what they’ve been through, I don’t make them too maudlin or self-pitying. A heroine who bursts into tears every other page is going to try the patience of the readers very quickly.

It's similarly clumsy to show someone going through a tragic event and somehow being completely untouched by it. Even then, readers don't want pages and pages of angst. Anger is a good emotion to use in that situation. Anger and a resolve to put things right.

The best way of using angst that I’ve found is to pick one difficult moment in a heroine’s life and work with that. It can be losing a parent, or a lover, or some other tragedy.  Concentrate on her breaking through that angst. At the same time, she must be seen to be getting on with, and even enjoying life, despite this darkness in her past.

The same goes for the tortured hero, who is a staple of romance novels (Mr Rochester is my particular favourite). Even then, one must be careful not to give him a problem he cannot solve within the context of the novel. For example, alcohol and drug addictions are very difficult to carry off in romance novels. A hero cannot simply be saved by the heroine’s love, any more than she can be saved by his. Addiction is a far more complex problem. That’s not to say he can’t be a recovering alcoholic or drug addict. But don’t have him going back on the Jack Daniels/heroin without working out the consequences of that action. He won’t just be able to suddenly stop again just because he finds out the heroine loves him after all, yet I’ve seen that happen time and again in romance novels. Sadly alcoholism and drug addiction can’t be cured by love. If that were the case, societies like Alcoholics Anonymous would not be necessary. It also doesn’t bode well for their romance if he’s going to hit the bottle/needle every time they have a row and he doubts her feelings.

I started by asking how much back story is too much. It really does depend on the novel and how it’s handled within the context of the novel. But if you have your heroine constantly crying over every loss she’s ever suffered from the year she was born, or the hero and heroine spending the last part of the novel solving all these problems one by one, instead of just getting on with their happy ending, then it’s possible you’ve over-egged the pudding a bit.


  1. You've summed it up well - we're not writing 'War and Peace' and there are expectations we should be aware of. I hope to make readers laugh or smile as much as worry over the hero/heroine's problems.

  2. Your answer 'it depends' sounds exactly right to me!

    If there's too much horrible stuff in her background, I think it actually makes it harder for us to relate to the character and feel sympathy.


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