If you watch the original pilot episode of Star Trek, ‘The Cage’ - and I’m going to guess that most of the people reading this blog will have at some point - you’ll notice something interesting. Spock has a limp. This was not because Leonard Nimoy had hurt his leg, not because it was some sort of character trait, but because of a conscious decision taken by Gene Roddenberry to indicate that the show was part of an ongoing saga. Yes, this episode had to introduce the characters and the style of the show, but it did not show their ‘first mission’. Spock’s limp - which isn’t really noted upon very heavily - was meant to imply that they had recently been on a mission that had resulted in injuries. We didn’t need to know how it happened, didn’t need a scene where he talks about how he twisted his ankle, it was just a little bit of scene dressing that created a wider universe.
This relates to two things I’m going to talk about today. The first is that ‘wider universe’, the idea that there is more going on in your setting than just the actions of the characters. I rate this as essential in order to make a setting convincing. If your characters are doing everything, then unless they are something truly extraordinary, it diminishes everything else. Yes, they are the focus of the story and the ongoing arc, that’s fine, but there must be more to life than just the adventures of half a dozen people.
Lin Carter advocated name-dropping as one way of doing this - referring to ‘Arcturian Brandy’, or something like that, and indeed this can be extremely effective if it is not taken to ridiculous extremes. We’ve all watched shows where every common item needs to come from somewhere exotic. It isn’t Vodka, it’s Martian Vodka. It isn’t a banana, it’s a Lemurian Banana. People don’t talk like that. The context needs to make sense, and it needs to be used sparingly. Have a character listening to old music, or use comparisons, “This place is worse than High Vegas.” “He served on the Gilgamesh before joining us at Spitfire Station, Captain Rogers seemed to think he was a good officer.” “Christ, not Bucky dropping his rejects again.” That’s how people do talk.
We don’t need to know details about everything. If a character has a scar, we don’t need to know why, unless it is actually important to the plot. Scene-dressing, sometimes, just is that. It can tell us about a character, it can tell us the condition of the surroundings, it can do a thousand things. If you are expanding the universe, it’s fine to do just that. (And make a note - you never know when you might turn it into a plot point at some time in the future.)
My main point, though, the ‘first book’. A first book in a series has to do an awful lot of things already - it needs to introduce the characters, it needs to introduce the style of the story, and it needs to introduce the setting. I suppose it is only natural to conclude that this book must be the ‘start of the saga’, that it must show us how everyone got together and moved on from there. I’ve done that myself, but it needn’t always be so. How many Superman origin stories must we have? How many times have movies shown us the ‘origin story’, only to end after only the first movie. (Superman especially. I’m going to guess that anyone going to see a Superman movie will know about Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, and Kryptonite already. With Star Trek, people know who Kirk, Spock and McCoy are. You don’t need to introduce those characters. Just tell your damn story already!)
Take James Bond, the movie version, for sake of this argument. Was Dr. No James Bond’s origin story? Did we see a long series of training montages, learn about his family, see the string of circumstances that turned him into a secret agent? No. That would have wasted more than an hour of the movie; instead we could get right into the plot. And that was a character that - at the time - was not in the public consciousness at all. Yet somehow, we’ve managed almost two dozen movies with that character.
Take Indiana Jones. ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ starts with Indiana Jones looking for a lost artefact, and that short sequence tells us everything we need to know about his character. Where we need to know about his background, it is woven in. (And as an aside - yes, prolonged exposition is not a good idea, but don’t be afraid to just use a line or two of dialogue to tell the reader something, rather than waffle for a page trying to work it in. Especially if it is key to the plot.) Did we spend an hour watching him train as an archaeologist, being recruited by Marcus Brody? Of course not. (Indeed, I must confess that the weakest part of Last Crusade was the start, where he seemed to pick up all his distinguishing characteristics in the course of an afternoon.)
The point is that the first novel in a series does not have to be the start of the character’s lives. It needs to start the story you plan on telling, but that doesn’t need to incorporate an origin story. If you need a wandering gunslinger dispensing justice throughout the land, just have one! The details can follow. We don’t need to see his village burn, not unless the plot is his quest for justice. (I cite A Fistful of Dollars as my ‘Exhibit A’ for this.)
This doesn’t mean that you can’t start with an origin story. For that matter, it’s quite possible to go back and fill in the details later on with prequels, though for God’s sake do a better job than George Lucas did. It does mean that there are other options that you can play with, ones that might enrich your universe. After all, if Sir Uther is fighting his first battle, his old enemy from a decade ago can hardly come back to haunt him in Book Two, can he?