Backstory is for Busters

But what makes you sit down and absorb lifeforms into yourself? Did it start with your father? Tell me about your mother, did she absorb lifeforms?

The thing I love about classic Sword and Sorcery like Conan is that Howard had no need for useless backstory. You find Conan chilling in some tavern, he hears about a wizards tower filled with loot, he decides to rob it freeing ancient gods and fighting monstrosities along the way. Simple, done, no bullshit.

Modern fantasy writers instead of focusing on the action would spend paragraphs boring me with the socio-economic role of said wizards tower in the city economy and how the looting economy would be disrupted by Conan’s actions. All of this following an in-depth two book background story on Conan’s intra-personal family relationships and his estrangement from his mother causing him to be a wandering barbarian thief.

The nerdy obsession with over explaining everything is really a symptom of our current generations inability to deal with the unexpected and unexplained. Bret Easton Ellis in his book White talks about 70s and 80s horror movies and how they lacked explanation.

… movies made in the ’70s didn’t have rules and often lacked the reassuring backstory that explained the evil away or turned it into a postmodern meta-joke. Why did the killer stalk the sorority girls in Black Christmas? Why was Regan possessed in The Exorcist? Why was the shark cruising around Amity? Where did Carrie White’s powers come from? There were no answers, just as there were no concrete connect-the-dot justifications of daily life’s randomness: shit happens, deal with it, stop whining, take your medicine, grow the fuck up.

Bret Easton Ellis in White

Excessive backstory and explanation demystify, destroying fantasy and imagination.

7 thoughts on “Backstory is for Busters

  1. The funny thing is I was complaining not that long ago that British authors could still get away with loose plots with back story dumps, while Americans only published or preferred tight action stories. But not all backstory is created equal. Some if it is Freudian, meant to overexplain why characters are the way they are, like everybody who’s an introverted grump must’ve been touched inappropriately by their fathers. I like backstory when it’s just another story in the story. Caveat: I don’t have much patience for modern fantasy.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Three things from me:
    1. Is that image from The Thing? Cuz that’s one of my favorite movies ever.
    2. Some backstory is good. It’s hard to have world-building without it. And if you want deeper backstory and character development, that is a thing. It’s legit. But not every genre shade wants/needs it, etc. Like you said, Conan doesn’t need it to do what Conan does. In my superhero stuff, I generally don’t try to come up with lame pseudo-science reasons for superpowers. Radioactive spiders give you cancer. Gamma bombs melt your cells. If you want to read about superhero shit, just be happy they got powers. It’s called “suspension of disbelief.” Move on with the story. But if you want your characters to be more than a 2D cardboard cut-out and resemble real people, you should have some backstory in mind.
    3. The “backstory demystifying” — biggest example to me: the dumb-ass Star Wars prequel movies! Every aspect that was once left to the imagination is painstakingly explained. Nothing is left to the mysterious magical mists. Kills it.


    1. I agree some backstory sprinkled through the narrative is actually good if not necessary. Star Wars is a great example. I remember thinking that the clone wars sounded so cool.. yeah that was a lamefest.


  3. Actually, one more thing from me, now that I think about it…
    4. My best story ever (in my opinion) was considered and rejected by a few big mags. One of those editors wrote me a personal note saying how much he liked it and that it was great, but in the end he didn’t know the completely-inhuman alien monster’s motivation for attacking so that’s why he didn’t publish the story.
    [face twisted in frustration]


    1. Alexandru,

      Backstories are private encyclopedias for the writers to refer to when writing their stories. For master craftsmen like Tolkien, the backstories are appendices that provides new stories and informative insights


      Liked by 1 person

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