Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Terrible Histories Don't Make Your Characters Inherently More Interesting

In case you've never been to The Literary Mercenary's sister blog Improved Initiative, I'm a big fan of roleplaying games. The big reason I enjoy them so much is it's a cooperative storytelling experience, so I get to share a passion with a group of friends that's usually something I have to do in a room by myself. It's also an interesting experience seeing people who are not storytellers by profession flex their creative muscles to create characters, histories, and quirks for who they're putting into the game world.

However, there is a particular trend I've noticed with both writers and RPG enthusiasts. Whenever they're asked to present an interesting protagonist, the first thing they want to do is beat the shit out of them, murder their family, and set their house on fire.

Because... happy people are boring, I guess?
There is this odd desire in a lot of writers, both new and experienced, to immediately try to make characters more interesting by doing terrible things to them. Their whole family was murdered in front of their face, or they were raised in an abusive home, or they experienced the horrors of war and now find themselves unable to turn off the reflexes they once had.

Now, that isn't to say that including tragic events in a character's backstory makes them a bad character. However, the correlation between overcoming terrible events and peaking the audience's interest is not a causation. And if you need more proof than that, all you need to do is look at Batman.

The Dark Knight's Appeal Isn't The "Dark" Part

When you think of Batman, you probably think of the most popular story of tragic loss and revenge-fueled heroism there is. Bruce Wayne's parents were cut down in front of him as a child, and instead of dealing with that loss in an understandable or mature way, he grew up to become one of the world's foremost martial artists/detectives/inventors/psychologists/criminologists/vigilantes. However, as I said back in Are "Tortured Souls" Really Just Stunted Characters?, that origin was tacked on after the character's initial success. So the writers could have skipped it entirely, or given him an entirely different motivation, and people still would have been intrigued by the character. Especially since the whole, "my parents are dead!" thing wasn't really emphasized until the Frank Miller era of Batman.

More commonly referred to as the characters "brick shithouse" era of design.
I bring this up to make a point. Namely, that the tragic backstory fit well enough that it flowed with the story, but readers were already intrigued by the costume, the gadgets, the imagery, and the presentation. You could have made Batman anything, from a member of a secret crime fighting league of costumed avengers, to a literal dark knight trained by descendants of Camelot, and it would have been just as good as what we got. Because while the audience was interested, the backstory wasn't what made the character interesting. It was his look, his style, his powers (or lack thereof), and the adventures he went on.

The Superman Example

Let's go to the other end of the DC spectrum for this; Superman. Superman has often been accused of being the most boring, over-powered Mary Sue in comics, but it's important to note that he also represents things so many storytellers these days think of as childish, or unrealistic. Clark Kent, Kal El, whatever you want to call him, is a good person. He's noble, he's hopeful, and he does what he does because he believes it's the right thing to do.

I know, right? Where does this guy get off?
However, if you strip away the super powers, the born of another world backstory, etc., what you wind up with is a character archetype we've seen forever. He's a knight of the round table, pushing forth on the strength of his purpose and his oath. We don't ask Percival why he does what he does, because we already know. Ditto Clark's motivations. And every time we've tried to slather on some grit, moral gray areas, or terrible past, you know what's happened? It's flopped. Every. Single. Time.

Because having his adoptive parents killed, or being forced to snap someone's neck to defend innocent bystanders, are not the sorts of things that make Superman compelling as a character. Sure, they can act as temporary filler, but once you take away the hopeful knight errant chassis, he's a lot less compelling.

Yes, you can take a story about someone who is similar in power to Superman, but who has very human flaws. That's where you get your Hercules, your Samson, etc. But even then, what makes those characters compelling isn't a tragic backstory. It's what they do with the powers they were given.

Is It A Necessity For Your Story?

If you find yourself either rejecting or defending the long and rocky road filled with blood and tears that led your character to where they are now, ask yourself one question. Are these events necessary in order for my story to work, and to provide the proper motivation for my character?

Because sometimes it is kind of necessary.
The Phantom is, perhaps, one of the best examples of when terrible circumstances are necessary to make a character work. Because, let's face it, a man of Erik's genius and talents could have become a celebrity in the art world. An exemplary musician, magician, playwright, and composer, Erik would have been the toast of Paris. Could the story of a reclusive genius training a beautiful young ingenue still work, as Christine is torn between the mysterious figure behind her art and the handsome viscount she knew in her youth? Yes, but the horror movie aspect would be gone. Erik would be a very different character than the cellar-dwelling, horrifically-visaged phantom we're all used to. And his mystery would be so much less if the face behind the mask was not a terror to behold.

The same holds true for characters like the Frankenstein monster, Jason Voorhees, and others. The tragic events that shaped them, and made them what they are, has lent them a compelling narrative. But before you start your next project, ask if the awful events in your own story are likewise necessary to make the characters what you need them to be. Especially if those events are to provide motivation, since a murdered spouse or dead family isn't really a necessity if you have a character concerned with justice, or who is simply opposed to the doings of the antagonist on some other grounds.

You don't have to jab your hero in the eye with a stick to make them confront the villains. Sometimes duty, faith, adherence to a code, or just the need to seek a worthy cause are enough to get them moving.

For additional reading, check out Why So Many Sad Backstories? over on Improved Initiative.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing installment. Hopefully it got some folks out there to reflect on their stories, and what is and isn't a necessity. If you'd like to stay on top of all my updates, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. If you want to help support me and my work, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! As little as $1 a month gets you a free book as a thank you.

1 comment:

  1. I write s character background recently where the bard was a son of a carpenter who wanted his son to go into the family business.

    That’s it. No tragedy. :)