The Backstory as Defence Lawyer

In a recent post on The Red Room, Orna B. Raz makes a very interesting case for the fiction writer’s ability to rewrite true life events, giving the stories a happier outcome on paper, than they might have had in reality.  She set me thinking about the power of fiction writing.  We can bestow upon our made-up characters everything we, ourselves, long for.  We can change the course of their lives much more easily than our own.  We can live through them in the way some parents live their unfulfilled dreams through their children… But without screwing up anybody else’s life.

Some time ago, during one of the Original Writers’ Group meetings, a member read out a chapter from her book; an account of her real-life struggle to save her seriously ill child, and of her success, against all medical odds.  A deeply inspiring testimony to courage, tenacity and hope.  Keen on being truthful, she had included minutely-recorded details of time, place, etc.  As a piece of writing, however, some of us in the group found it a little arid.  During the subsequent feedback session, one of the other writers came up with an unexpected suggestion.  “Why don’t you write it as a novel?” she said.  Seeing everyone’s puzzled expression, she added, “You could tell so much more truth if you wrote it as fiction.”

At the time, I did not follow, but her words took a firm grip in a file in my memory, resurfacing at regular intervals, for me to turn over and examine, like a Rubik Cube.  Now, I totally agree with her.  The category of Fiction allows you to penetrate and explore dimensions of human emotions that are too unquantifiable to be factualised.  That is why I have always been of the opinion that fairy tales take up where History leaves off, providing a degree of insight into the human psyche, which can be gained only with a meta-factual method of observing and learning.  Facts, no matter how comprehensive and precise, are limited, while imagination is unlimited.  Imagination sets us free to explore realms which our reason would consider out of bounds.

In addition, with sufficient skill, placing your writing under the Fiction banner can put you beyond the reach of law suits.  It’s just a story.  It’s not real.  All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental, etc.

Another, non-negligible, powerful magic wand we, fiction writers, possess – and, I feel very strongly, have a responsibility to use – is to help build a path towards forgiveness.


With the Backstory.

Every good actor, knows that to make a character credible and sympathetic, you need to give him or her a motivation for his or her actions.  Motivation.  Another word for Backstory.  The reason Iago is one of theatre’s most charismatic and wonderful baddies (and my all-time favourite one), is Shakespeare’s creation of motivations – a backstory – for his wickedness.  Yes, what Iago sets in motion in the play, is evil.  It would take one talented lawyer to get him acquitted.  But why does Iago trigger this bloody tragedy? Iago, is a good soldier, loyal to Othello.  He deserves a promotion.  Othello meets and falls in love with Desdemona, his brain instantly plummets far South, and he promotes pretty-faced Michael Cassio, instead.  The full force of this injustice strikes a wound in Iago, which festers and turns to poison.  He then gives out nothing but poison to others.  Yes, Iago is cruel but, dramatically, it is Othello who creates the circumstances to which Iago reacts with cruelty.  Othello is the unwitting cause to Iago’s – admittedly, disproportionate – effect.  His crime is abominable, but not senseless.

“It is what I do,” said a close friend who is a highly intelligent and deeply kind lawyer.  “I try and discover why my client committed a crime.  It’s called ‘extenuating circumstances’.”

Extenuating Circumstances is the defence lawyer’s word for the writer’s Backstory.  The crime was committed.  The victim has suffered.  The defendant is sometimes guilty.  We are not – and must not – deny or invalidate in any way the seriousness of the crime, but I think we should apply some of Atticus Finch’s advice: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”  That involves practising a little empathy not just towards the victim, but towards the offender.  I strongly believe that if Atticus Finch’s words were inscribed in every courtroom, for juries and judges to see, far fewer people could find it in themselves to condemn an offender to death.  Capital punishment is, in my opinion, the ultimate expression of hopelessness.  And how do you walk around in someone else’s skin without resorting to imagination? Without filling the gaps between facts with a little fiction?

It goes without saying, that I mean no offence or disrespect towards those people who have suffered injustices so harrowing, I cannot begin to fathom.  When you write a piece like this, you inevitably take a stand which leads to rule-of-thumb theories.  I would also never, ever, claim that forgiveness is easy.

In her inspiring book, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson writes, “Forgiveness unblocks the future”.  Another wise friend I have says that a backstory allows you to shift the focus from yourself as a victim, and create a larger picture in which you can see the dynamic of why something was done to you but also why you, as a person, have reacted to it the way you have.  In a way, it can make the unpleasant experience less personal to you.  It can help you stop carrying the sense of guilt that, somehow, it is your fault, even if someone else has harmed you.  It can allow you to move on.

There are some wonderful, kind-hearted people who possess that precious ability to forgive naturally, straight from their hearts.  I envy these people’s generosity.  Mark Twain’s words (and I greatly admire him), “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it” makes my heart go “Aww…” but my brain equate it with a mouthful of coffee with cream, five sugars and a dollop of maple syrup.  How many people are truly able to forgive without understanding why? Someone is unforgivably rude to me during my working day.  I want to retaliate with my own rudeness.  I want to know why this person has been so unkind to me.  It was uncalled for.  I cannot ask him or her.  All I can do, is imagine a scenario in which this person had something happen to him or her, which caused so much anger and frustration, that he or she has taken it out on me.  It’s not my fault, though.  But why have I reacted with so much anger? Is it because this was the last straw at the end of a particularly stressful day?

One of my all-time favourite books is The Loop by Nicholas Evans.  In it, there is the character of an old man who has spent his life devising stomach-churning methods of killing wolves, back in the days when there was, effectively, a campaign to exterminate wolves in North America.  You hate this character, and wish for him to fall into and be mangled by one of the traps he lays for the wolves.  Then, ever so subtly, Evans makes transpire this man’s backstory and, as the novel unfolds, your feelings are transformed.  You still hate the cruel act, but you feel genuine pity – even compassion – towards the perpetrator.

Could this be tried in real life?  Someone has hurt you, injured you, done you a terrible injustice.  But why? What is the bigger picture? In real life, you can rarely discover someone’s backstory, and even if you do, you never truly know it completely.

And if you do not know the Backstory… Why not just make one up?  Build a set of imaginary circumstances for your real person, that just might have led him or her to act the way he or she did.  You write fiction, right? It does not have to be real – it just has to make sense in your head, and the rest of you might just slide more easily into forgiveness.  After all, reality is so often a matter of perspective.  Moreover, the advantage of fiction over reality, is that you create the fiction that sits most comfortably with you.  Your imagination can be your friend, in that it often feeds you just as much as you can swallow.

And, no, I never said it was easy.

But might it not just be worth a try?

Scribe Doll

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12 Responses to The Backstory as Defence Lawyer

  1. Anna says:

    Great!!! This one word expresses my feelings after reading your post.

  2. evanatiello says:

    Oh Katia, I love this. So thought provoking. And you’ve hit the nail on the head.

  3. Tracy says:

    There’s a movie starring John Wayne and Gail Russell, Angel and the Badman (1947), in which this quote from the Quaker’s is used:

    “Each human being has an integrity that can be hurt only by the act of that same human being and not by the act of another human being.”

    The “Badman”, of course, finds this amusing, but it’s given me a lot to think on in regard to how I perceive and respond to other people. When I see someone act in a rude manner, I often feel bad for them. What is it like to live as someone who doesn’t care that they hurt people? Can they truly be happy? We all hurt someone else at times, but most of us will go back and apologize. What kind of joy can a person experience in life who never sees a reason to apologize? How sad to be either clueless or cold.

  4. …You could tell so much more truth if you wrote it as fiction …
    Just so 🙂
    Lovely eloquent writing, also making a case for what some writers might not be willing to admit, that in a way, even when not necessarily intended, they not only entertain, but also work out a theme for themselves and for all of us.

    As happens occasionally, I wrote a post which resonates. Plan to rake through my archive for an image to go with it and might post it tomorrow.

    • scribedoll says:

      Thank you for your kind comments.

      I increasingly believe that, as writers/painters/composers/artists, etc. we should take responsibility for what we put out there.

  5. I can see that you are very passionate about this, and about the topic of forgiveness. It comes to me that often I write motivations for characters which would never be motivations that I would willingly accept as my own, and perhaps this is the best I can do to forgive: it’s not a strong point of mine, forgiveness. If someone apologizes, I am more open to reconciliation, but you yourself know how often we have to settle for trying to understand what motivates someone without their attempt to make us see it sympathetically (often they don’t care whether we forgive them or not). But I do see the validity of your arguments, and admire you for feeling so strongly about them. As your previous commenter noted, it’s nice to hear from you again!

    • scribedoll says:

      Thank you!

      Actually, I feel passionate about this topic for purely selfish reasons. Forgiving allows one to travel light. It’s not about the other person – it’s about our own peace of mind :–)

  6. Grainne Gillis says:

    Thanks Scribedoll for this – you’ve been missed! xx

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