Character Backstory: Lessons from Orange is the New Black
I recently finished binge watching Orange is the New Black (OITNB). I definitely enjoyed this series. I wouldn’t use the word “love,” but I definitely liked it, and I’ll be watching season 4 when it comes out in June.
What I DID love was the way the writers presented character backstory.
1. ALL characters have backstories. Even minor characters. It’s easy to allow secondary or third-tier characters to wallow in the land of one or two dimensions. OITNB does a fabulous job of revealing character backstories through flashbacks. Now, I’m not sure this would work in a network show where you have to wait week to week for the story to unfold. But for a Netflix series where you can binge 13 episodes in a short amount of time, it does work. By the second episode, I trusted the writers and knew they’d eventually get to everyone’s backstories.
Novel writers need to do the same: we need to keep ALL characters’ backstories in mind. No, the cashier who appears in one paragraph doesn’t need you to present her backstory (even though she has one). But who knows? If you take the time to consider her backstory, you might be able to provide a telling detail that reveals insight into who she is and that makes your story all the richer because of it.
2. A rich and honest character backstory should solve (or at least diminish) the “I didn’t like any of the characters” issue. An age-old debate centers around whether you need to have at least one “likable” character in your book. What happens if none of your characters is likable? I think when this issue comes up in reviews and book clubs (e.g. “I hated this book! I hated all the characters!”), what people are really saying is that they couldn’t connect with any of the characters. In other words, the issue isn’t a lack of likability so much as it’s a lack of character development.
I think it’s perfectly OK to have characters who aren’t likable, as long as we readers can understand, on some level, how the characters got to be where they are. If we can see their arc and how they evolved, we can still dislike and even hate the character, but perhaps connect on a human level, which can then allow us to accept the character for who he or she is and avoid dismissing an otherwise worthwhile story out of hand.
In OITNB, many unlikable characters (e.g. Leanne, Pennsatucky, Big Boo, even Healy) become more human once we have a better understanding of their backstories. No, we might never like them (I still don’t like Leanne), but I understand them better.
And, yes — I realize some writers might want to write a book with nothing but unlikable characters. That’s fine, if that’s truly your goal. It’s your story, your book. (And, yes — there are readers who can overlook the unlikability factor in a story that’s brilliantly told.)
3. Character backstory doesn’t mean “info dump.” For my current work-in-progress, I’ve written dozen of detailed scenes that have allowed me to get to really know my characters. And 90 percent of those scenes have been discarded or revised down to a few lines.
See, it’s important for me, the writer, to know every character detail, but it’s not necessary for the reader. And as for the info the reader does need to know? Don’t present it all in one big info dump.
OITNB presents character backstories over time. We might get a revealing flashback for Pennsatucky in one episode and then 10 episodes later, get another flashback that provides further insight. Holding back some info is what keeps readers reading (and viewers viewing).
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