The question of “why” continues in memoir and fiction. Why this protagonist? Why now? Why does what happens in the story present matter to the protagonist?
Through backstory, we find the why of the present story we are trying to tell, according to Lisa Cron, the creator of the Story Genius method of writing. The reader wishes to understand why the protagonist behaves as she does. What is her backstory?
In memoir as in fiction, backstory shows the reader why what’s happening in the story—the story action—matters to the protagonist.
In Victoria’s memoir story, she had always revered those who went to college. College graduates were smarter than she was, she felt. They were successful, in her mind. And, the college-educated were in charge of her children’s education—especially her special needs oldest daughter.
Victoria dealt with these feelings of inferiority until the high school guidance counselor told her that her oldest daughter shouldn’t go to college. She wasn’t capable. She wouldn’t be able to handle the work.
This is where the writer brings in “why this matters to Victoria.” Without the “why” of the story, the memoir would be merely surface. Who cares? Just stick the child in special education and let the educated people deal with teaching the child.
But Victoria had never done that. She was a team player and always supported all her children through their education. Until now. Until high school. Victoria didn’t feel knowledgeable enough to teach her children high school subjects.
Okay. But why let this bother Victoria? Why did what the counselor tells her matter so much to Victoria?
It matters because Victoria has always wanted to be included among the college-educated. She feels she could be a better mother, if she is college-educated.
Then go to college, the reader thinks.
But Victoria believes, at the time the memoir story opens, that the opportunity to attend college has passed. She has five young children, the oldest special needs. Her husband travels for work.
To go deeper, Victoria was told by her father she wasn’t smart enough herself to succeed in college because she too struggled in her early education. Her father felt he was saving his daughter from possible failure in life.
This is why what is happening in the present memoir scene with her daughter’s high school guidance counselor matters so much to Victoria. This is where specific backstory comes into play.
You put story-specific backstory into the scene at a moment when something triggers the protagonist to think back to a particular past situation or action in order to make sense of the present situation.
A protagonist may use his or her personal backstory to make a decision on how to respond or how to act in a specific confrontation or situation in the story. Backstory helps the reader understand why the protagonist is reacting the way she is.
Think about it in your own life. We use our own personal backstory; how we were brought up, our experiences and learned life lessons, to make sense of our present world and personal life. Our past—our backstory—helps us to decide what to do next in life situations. Our past helps us to make meaning of our present.
Backstory can be a few words, a few paragraphs of explanation, or even an entire scene to explain what happened in order to show why a character acts the way she does in story present.
Backstory is uniquely tied to the origin scene in story. In the origin scene, a flaw is found in the logic of the protagonist. Where is this scene in the life of your protagonist, the particular flaw that is addressed through your story or memoir? Why did Victoria believe she wouldn’t succeed in college? We’ll address this next month.
Please offer me any feedback about the logic of Victoria’s memoir story, for it truly helps me to move forward in my work. Also, feel free to pose memoir topics. I will share what I know through my blog posts.
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