Women’s Fiction is about the problems women face and how they overcome them. But it’s in the presentation of those problems where WF writers catch a break not readily available to other genre authors–they can use more backstory. Which makes sense if you think about it. With almost any other genre, the reader knows what to expect–someone got killed, and the main character is going to find out who killed him, or Good-Lookin’ Woman meets Good-Lookin’ Man, and they’re going to fall in love.
With women’s fiction, the emotional baggage the MC carries can literally be anything, and because dumping it is the point of the book, the reader needs to know what that baggage contains.
Since many of the issues women face stem from events in their past, a full understanding of their backstory is necessary for the reader to understand where the main character is coming from and bond with her. How much space in the set-up is dedicated to backstory seems to depend on how far back in the character’s history her burden landed in her lap. In my novel, The Cat Lady’s Secret, the event which changed Emily’s life happened fairly recently–within five years before the story’s beginning. I spend roughly 60 pages dribbling out her backstory in the dialogue while illustrating how she currently handles her problem and setting her up for the series of events that force her to confront it.
Leanna Ellis’s books, Elvis Takes a Backseat and Lookin’ Back, Texas, follow the same method of providing backstory, but two of my literary WF examples are different. Both spend up to two-thirds of the novel presenting the MC’s past—large chunks of the past are plopped in among tidbits of the present.
In To Be Sung Underwater, by Tom McNeal, Judith is unsatisfied with her life, which strikes her as somewhat vanilla. To escape the mundane–and the idea her vanilla husband has found a lover–she slips into a refuge she created for herself in a mini-storage unit and recalls times which were far more exciting, more reckless, more alive. And she recalls the man who made them that way. As he presents her life in story-present, McNeal also spends a considerable amount of time in Judith’s past–so much so that the confrontation with her past doesn’t begin until around 325 of a 436-page novel. Judith finds her past lover and reunites with him, forcing her to face the decision she’d made to leave him all those years ago. What changes to her present will result from this reunion?
Sue Miller’s While I was Gone is the same way, except her main character, Jo, was perfectly content with her life. Her story goes from her immediate past to her distant past, then flings them together to show how both threaten to ruin her idyllic present. “Ordinary life. Flesh. It was my world then. I was wrapped in it, held in it, I thought. And now I’m not. Now I float.” In her distant past, Jo was quiet, reserved–not shy, really, but selfish with information about herself–a fault she carries into adulthood. Soon her past smacks into her present, and she has to change that selfish privacy to help her marriage survive.
Whether it’s dribbled lightly through dialogue or dolloped in by heavy tablespoons, the backstory in WF is vital. Pull it out or abbreviate it, and you could ruin the entire story–you certainly run the risk of having your reader at a loss over how to feel about the MC and her plight.
But if the backstory isn’t presented well, if it’s not relevant, if it’s not interesting, you’ll lose your reader anyway. Your backstory has to be as well developed as the main story. If you’re presenting your character at a younger age, as Miller and McNeal did, you must know them as youngsters as well as you know the adult version of them–and you must show the connection between then and now. If the life-altering event occurred more recently, you have to know your “before” and “after” character thoroughly.
The backstory isn’t included to increase wordcount. It’s there to show why the character is the way she is and what she has to confront. The more traumatic your character’s past is, the more she must reflect the results of her past, so picture the traits your character would have based on her past and life-altering event. Advice I could offer regardless of your genre, right?