We’ve discussed backstory (here and here) before but when we’re considering the backstory revealed by the first-person narrator we have to be very careful to consider how much of this backstory and motivations because there are things the narrator simply won’t know.
As we discussed last week there’s things they know and things they think they know and things they have to find out as the writer we have to decide what the character already knows about other characters at the beginning of the story. For instance the protagonist might not know much about the antagonist, but they might’ve met before so what did they learn then? What impressions did they get? How much do we tell the reader about this?
Consider Doctor Who, The Doctor and The Master are supposed to have known each other their whole lives (about 2,000 years in the most recent series) it would be very difficult to convey all that backstory. However, as the audience knows the extreme length of time they have known each other the audience is less surprised when one reveals something about the other that the audience didn’t know they knew. In this instance we don’t need to see them acquiring information because the length of that relationship makes this ‘surprise’ knowledge less surprising. Nor does it require a lengthy explanation of how they grew up together/where they met, while the series may have revealed this a viewer who hasn’t seen that bit can drop in, pick up the knowledge of their lengthy relationship and accept the ‘surprises’.
If such a lengthy relationship had not been established and one revealed something about the other that they couldn’t know without a lengthy relationship then the viewer might be less ready to accept it. So in this case knowing their backstory, or at least that part of their backstory, is very important. This works with a first-person narrator as well where it would be jarring if they showed an in-depth knowledge of another character’s backstory without them having some form of pre-existing relationship or established knowledge. Established knowledge could include something like ‘I read their biography’ or ‘I looked them up online’, but in this case the established knowledge may be untrue as it’s second-hand and has no supporting evidence. There’s nothing to say that a biography/autobiography is true, nor that information found on the internet is true (except my articles, of course).
In this case the backstory they present would be different because it’s not a longstanding relationship. They may be able to say, ‘I read your autobiography and it seems to me that…’ but that’s not the same thing as ‘I’ve known you for 2,000 years and I’ve got to say…’ because a long-standing relationship would give more opportunity for a person to reveal themselves than a four hundred page edited book. For this reason information garnered from a book or the internet would be easily contradicted later on, it wouldn’t require the character to lie or be mistaken in their interpretation simply for the character whose backstory it is to have fabricated it. Therefore it’s not the narrator that lied, it’s another character who lied to them.