Sometimes it’s easier to spot weaknesses and errors in other people’s work (published or not) when you’ve been guilty of it yourself. Or sometimes you spot it in your own work when you’re looking it over after getting some new writing advice.
A storyline or part of a character’s backstory shouldn’t just be put in a book to be sensational or because you think it’s somehow expected. All the “hot adolescent issues” I had in the earliest drafts of my first Atlantic City books feel like this. Not only do most of them not even fit with how these characters ultimately developed, but they feel really gimmicky, cliché, forced, and out of place.
Like, in the WTCOAC book set in 1948-9, Al suddenly has a full-blown eating disorder. During her teen years, she plays the lead female role on a popular local teen soap, My Two Lives. Mr. Porter, the director/producer, told her to lose weight so she’d be able to film a long scene with a massive Easter meal. So suddenly she’s got bulimia, in some very public, unnecessarily graphic scenes. Later on she switched to anorexia, and was cured as miraculously and speedily as someone in a Beatrice Sparks book. Hey, I was only 13.
Also just as suddenly and out of nowhere, also in 1949, Al was a huge flaming racist. This is really embarrassing to read back on so many years later. She has meltdowns at the beach and in a restaurant when African-Americans appear, and brutally scrubs her hand when she touches someone she didn’t realize was African-American. Oh, and she’s also suddenly a gigantic homophobe. Yeah, because in 1949-50, there were SO many gays out of the closet!
Al isn’t perfect, and is always a bit of a lightheaded ditz, but she’s not a bad person. She’s actually kind of sweet, in spite of her favorite line, “I’m only a woman!” She finally reaches a point where she’s tired of being pushed around and not taken seriously, and really develops a long-latent feminist consciousness. But she’s definitely not a bigot, at least not by her generation’s standards.
So it really annoys me when I’m reading a book where a big issue like that is introduced, often rather dramatically, and then quickly dropped like it never happened. Don’t reveal that a main or important character is bulimic, was raped, survived incest, is in an abusive relationship, is suicidal, or is doing cocaine, only to never return to that! If the character and everyone around him or her functions for the rest of the book as though that issue doesn’t even exist or isn’t important, just remove it. It clearly wasn’t that important to your storyline or the character’s backstory if you forgot about it so quickly.
I’m beyond embarrassed at how, at age 12-13, I seriously used rape as a throwaway storyline. It’s bad enough that a lot of tv shows use the “rape as character development” trope for so many female characters. At that age, I had no idea what the lifelong impact of this violent crime is. Oh, and in the 1940s, a rape survivor wouldn’t have gone around telling everyone about it or acting like it were no big deal. If anything, people would’ve taken the guy’s side and seen the girl as a whore, and possibly also making up stories to try to smear a good old boy’s reputation. Ugh.
Three of my characters are survivors of incestuous childhood abuse—Lenore Eve Troy (née Hartlein), Julie Claire Laska (née Spirnak), and Lyubov Ilyinichna Koneva (née Leontiyevna Zhukova). This is definitely a big part of their respective backstories and continued character development. I didn’t just put it in there to be sensationalistic. It’s very bad writing if you give a character something that traumatic in her past and then depict her like she’s totally normal, with no lingering, permanent aftereffects, like in how she relates to men or how she sees herself.
A character’s backstory makes him or her who s/he is. If s/he functions for the entire book as though a rather traumatic event or defining issue doesn’t matter, you should ask yourself why you even included it. If it’s not an integral part of the storyline or the character’s personality, either rethink how you’re writing this book or just remove it.