Some time ago I brought up the importance of back story to the intrepid novel writer. I think I declared its significance critical because all good books have rich, memorable characters who stick with us, the hearty meals of literature, or something. I talked about layers of storytelling and animating the actors in a tale, and all of that is well and good. But in thinking about some of the most well known real-life stories in recent history—the threat of terrorism, the collapse of the housing market, the latest wave of immigration in the United States, the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt—I started thinking about counter narratives. I think about them for what they are, and how people’s perspectives motivate them to behave accordingly, but for the purposes of this little blog I’m not discussing those politics today. I just want to ponder counter narrative as a tool for the writer. (Even as I’m wishing the protesters well.)
Back story gives us insight as writers into the makeup of a story’s cast, yes, but in our waking, nonfiction worlds, we know there can be quite a rift between what experiences one has and how one understands them. This is where exploring counter narratives can help us. Who believes what about the events in (or preceding) the story? Let’s say a small child is killed by a train. Our faithful detective sorts through the eyewitnesses, but the impressions don’t add up. Spending time thinking about the perspectives each witness thinks they experienced can help for the telling of the story—maybe one woman’s father helped found the railroad system and she just can’t cognitively process that conductors could negligently kill a person, and this shifts her understanding of the event.
Other events are harder to pin down and then counter narratives look more like the real deal. If we take the 2008 financial collapse, for example, there are a host of narratives and counter narratives that people ascribe to with all their might:
- Wall Street swindled the American people.
- People who bought houses they couldn’t afford broke the market.
- Government-managed banks got greedy by bundling up mortgages to sell as securities.
- Investment banks got too big.
- Individuals relied too much on credit instead of living inside their means.
It can be true that more than one narrative, or aspects of a narrative, are true in a given situation. But who holds which belief? It’s not the CEO of a major financial firm who holds the first bullet point dear to his heart. Combing through his perspective as well as his rote back story can help make him a more interesting character.
Jean Piaget famously showed us that behavior informs attitude, giving us the constructivist approach. In thinking about counter narratives—all of the perspectives that will compete with the protagonist’s—we should include this linkage in our back story and character development. That CEO taking his chauffeured ride into the city, his whole world carefully constructed to support his point of view, all while his chauffeur himself scrabbles to make payments on his upside-down mortgage. What does knowing their counter narratives about their universes help them achieve in the story? A list of counter narratives regarding the central action or event of the story can help us make the telling of it better.