Characters with tragic backstories are as common as parentless Disney protagonists. Depressing pasts are widespread in the fantasy genre. Want to give a protagonist a rough edge and convince readers to feel sorry for her? Slap on some traumatic memories.
Tragic backstories have become cliché, but that doesn’t mean sadness should be avoided. Even if our own histories are not as dramatic as our protagonist’s, we’ve all learned painful lessons from our mistakes. Characters are reflections of real life. As such, they must have struggles and wounds too.
Now that a tragic backstory has become expected, how do we make it meaningful? Hardships impact and change us, and the same should be true of our characters. We must link our protagonist’s issues to character, arc, theme, and plot so readers can empathize with her.
Tying Backstory to Character
If a character’s history hasn’t altered her, readers won’t care. Backstory must affect or control how she lives. Even if she has overcome the tragedies of her past, scars remain. She’s formed strong beliefs and ideals based on her experiences.
Let’s cook up a demonstration, shall we?
Pretend our protagonist is a shoemaker named Felice. She earned money weaving magical dance slippers until her partner tampered with a pair of shoes designed especially for the queen. The pair caused a fall that crippled the queen for life, provoking the king to such a rage that he outlawed magic shoes and sought to execute Felice.
Sad enough. Now, how would this backstory scar her? Would she become depressed? Vindictive? Filled with guilt? We’ll choose anger and vengeance. She wants to destroy the woman who obliterated her career. Readers may not like her vengeful intent, but when her backstory is revealed, they’ll understand.
Note: A character’s backstory doesn’t have to involve a single situation. People are changed by prolonged exposure to disasters, abuse, and other trying circumstances. The principles regarding a singular trauma can also apply to extended events.
Tying Backstory to Character Arc and Theme
We’ve secured the backstory to our character. To weave her scar into her arc, she must deal with it, which will either transform her into a better person (positive arc), or drag her down until she’s in a worse state than before (negative arc).
Since theme and character arc are interlinked, the scar the protagonist wrestles with generates the theme. Felice drew her desire for revenge from her past, and that’s how she coped with her losses. Vengeance becomes one of our story’s themes. If we’re aiming for a positive message, like “Forgiveness brings peace,” we could have Felice forgive the woman who wronged her at the end of the story. If we want to set a darker, more depressing tone, Felice could be consumed with vengeance, mistakenly harm those she thought were responsible for her hurt, and realize she’s ruined innocent lives in the process. This message would revolve around the dangers of taking revenge and judgment into our own hands.
To force our protagonist to address her wounds, we can use the same tactics we’d employ to challenge her beliefs about the story’s theme. Side characters can question her ideals, and she’ll learn from the consequences of her choices or others’ actions.
Connecting a character’s scar to the theme deepens the story’s meaning. The theme isn’t an abstract concept but intimate and personal. Felice lives by her ideals, which were shaped by heartache.
Cool, right? But I have more news: characters won’t always resolve all their inner turmoil within a single story—especially if they have multiple problems. In reality, some people don’t change. People don’t conquer one issue and remain perfect the rest of their lives. But a character’s history usually holds at least one scar we can focus on.
This explanation only touches on the topic of how sad backstories can impact a character. The Emotional Wound Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi is an amazing resource that has taught me so much. It opened my eyes to the effects of internal wounds and how they build character arcs. However, trauma is gritty and painful, so the book is not suitable for everyone. Read with care.
Tying Backstory to Plot
Weaving backstory into the plot is a more obvious strategy to make the past count. When backstory contains details that are crucial to the plot, readers must face this information because it drives the story and influences the protagonist’s movements.
Felice’s vengeful goal was born from her tragedy. The law against magical shoes and the bounty on her head overshadow her mission as well, further coloring the plot with backstory.
But what if there’s more? What if the king coerced Felice’s partner to create faulty shoes that were meant to kill the queen, not leave her crippled? We need to dig beyond our first impressions and contemplate how we can incorporate the people, events, or even objects from the backstory into the plot. It’s fertile ground for unexpected twists.
But plot twists alone can’t do all the work. Where we position them is vital to propelling the plot.
A pivotal place for a plot twist is the midpoint, an event in a story’s middle that pushes the protagonist to act. In our tale, a midpoint plot twist may happen when Felice discovers the king is behind her misfortune. In a way, this aggravates her plans. Her opponent is the most powerful man in the kingdom, with an army at his back. Enacting revenge will be nigh impossible. But now she knows her target. Her goal is clarified, and she can move forward.
Another fantastic place for a twist is the third plot point. This reveal can be especially tragic and lead to the slump before the climax. In our story, a twist may occur when Felice manages to poison one of the guards she suspects is in league with the king, only to realize too late that he was the one person standing between the king and the queen’s assassination.
However, we must be careful about adding a plot twist to the climax. By the time the big showdown is in motion, most of the puzzle pieces are visible. Any twist in the story must feel like a key clicking in a lock, a truth readers could sense all along but couldn’t see clearly until the climax. Otherwise, it can seem random and forced.
Put Effort into Backstory
The dark shadow in a character’s history can provide plot twists, produce emotional wounds, and propel character arcs, but these elements won’t appear on their own. Crafting compelling, meaningful backstories requires effort that only we can give. It won’t be easy, but when we spend time examining our characters’ pasts, we can tunnel below the surface to cultivate grounds rich for a surprising story.
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood.