I had the Food Network on in the living room TV while I read emails this afternoon. Ace of Cakes was on. They featured a Noah’s Ark cake they prepared for a little girl named Rachel who was celebrating her Bat Mitzvah. I was increasingly drawn from what I was reading as the bakers shared this elaborate backstory they created for the ark cake, which guided their concept as they built this terrific piece. They had all the animals rejoicing on the cake, kissing and celebrating because they’d made it onto the ark (who doesn’t want to be part of the in-crowd?). All the animals were happy except the unicorn and the dragon who was left on an island consoling each other. One of the bakers explained that the unicorn and dragon were a metaphor symbolizing Rachel’s rite of passage to adulthood and the fantasy world she would leave behind.
A writer can’t provide an account of every word or action of a particular character. That’s not a script; that’s a diary. Creating the backstory if one is used is, therefore, the job of the performer. Many actors, in fact, create elaborate backstories, giving a character a made-up history to add depth and color to their performances. Often the shorter the role, the more detailed the backstory. If you think about it, that makes sense. With walk-ons or short supporting roles, there is less opportunity to see the character’s history unfold, less time to convey anything about the character. Believing the character has conflicted relationships, tragic experiences, or quirky obsessions can infuse the moment with more than the words or actions supplied by the writer.
Voice actors can be even more challenged in their efforts to develop a character, often having less than 60 seconds to convey any depth or dimension — and all without the benefit of body language or facial expressions. A backstory can, therefore, be a great character development tool, not only providing an effective way to flesh out a character in a short amount of time, but also enhancing the overall creative process, and making it more enjoyable — as Ace of Cakes reminded me today.