by Chris F. Holm
"How much backstory do you write or know about your character before you put word one to page?"
Man, that's a tricky question. Or, rather, it's two separate questions smooshed together, which for me have wildly divergent answers.
First, let's tackle part one. How much of my main character's backstory do I write down before I first put fingers to keyboard? Um, none. Does that mean I'm free to go? I'm on deadline, after all, so I could really use the writing time.
But wait: there's still part two to deal with. And here's where the wicket gets all sticky-like. How much of my main character's backstory do I know? Um, all of it. Except for when I'm wrong. Which I often am. Only not really, because I can't be wrong unless I write it down, which, as I mentioned in my answer to part one, I never do.
Perhaps I should explain. And because I'm an enormous nerd (Editor's Note: Chris' nerdity is enormous; Chris himself is rather on the scrawny side), I think the best way to do so is with Star Wars.
Unless you're a total Star Wars geek like me, you may not realize the Star Wars universe is broken down into a hierarchical series of canons. There's N-canon, where all the goofy "what-if" stuff, like Yoda showing up as a playable character in Soulcalibur IV, gets slotted. Then S-canon, which includes semi-canonical stuff like Star Wars role-playing games. C-canon is where all the expanded-universe books and comics go; T-canon includes any and all television series. G-canon is the absolute canon, which Lucasfilm defines as "...the movies (their most recent release), the scripts, the novelizations of the movies, the radio plays, and any statements by George Lucas himself. "
Personally, I've no interest in all the secondary canon stuff. I'm a purist: as far as I'm concerned, if it didn't happen in the movies, it didn't happen. (Heck, there's even stuff in some of those I'd just as soon forget.) But you'll note there's no enumerated canon up there for me, because any crazy crap George Lucas decides to say falls under some kind of Jedi equivalent of papal infallibility. Meaning when Lucas told an inquiring Jon Stewart that Obi-Wan was from the planet Stewjon, POOF: it became true.
Stupid, right? (Unless, of course, you're Jon Stewart, in which case it's holy-shit cool.) I mean, it wasn't in the movies. Or even, for that matter, in the books, comics, or role-playing games. But George Lucas said it, which apparently makes it so.
As an author, I live in fear of wielding such power. And for whatever reason, once I write something down about a character, it is (in my own mind, at least) incontrovertibly true. Even if it's stupid, or useless, or – worse yet – counterproductive to the story. So, even though I know my main character pretty well before I begin writing, I never commit anything to print until such time as it becomes essential to the story. I mean, I'd hate to think my badass soul collector protag's a lousy day of backstory-spitballing away from having a secret My Little Pony collection.
Oh, hell. I just wrote that, didn't I? Sorry, Sam. Maybe I could make it up to you with some X-ray vision...