Saturday, July 26, 2014

How to write tragic backstories

A staple of fiction is the suffering of characters. One of the all-time favorites of authors is the tragic backstory.

What is a tragic backstory?
The childhood and past of characters contains tragedy to some extent, what qualifies it as being tragic is subjective, but generally it's when the backstory is mostly sad rather than happy.

Tragedy can come in many forms. It can be caused by other characters, by the character herself or by external circumstances. The first one is obvious, but you may also include things such as a mother getting ill or dying.

A character can cause her own suffering by misinterpreting her surroundings and believing things that are false. Or maybe she blames herself for something that isn't her fault, or perhaps simply she was too shy to ask out her high school sweetheart and he wound up marrying her sister.

External circumstances can be anything. Being the chosen one has been known to cause characters to lead tragic lives. Simply being born too late or too early. Something like getting sick or getting snowed in. Anything really.

Purpose of tragic backstories
The primary purpose is because it's fun to torture your character. It's okay to admit that you like doing this, we authors are a sadistic bunch.

In seriousness, there are two reasons for tragic backstories. To explain a characters behavior or to generate sympathy for them.

Trying to generate sympathy for characters can be a double edged sword. If the character is unlikable in the present, no such tragic upbringing will make your audience like her. It may even make them like the people who are causing her misfortune or more likely, they just won't care and see it as a poor attempt to make us like the character.

Trying to explain the behavior tends to work better, though it depends on what they're doing. If your character is someone who doesn't like people because her mother abused her, this explanation will work better than if your character is trying to take over the world because her mother spanked her once for breaking a window. Unless you're writing a comedy, that last one is not a good reason for taking over the world.

The do's and don'ts of tragic backstories
A tragic backstory like any other story element, needs to be handled with care. Maybe more so than others, as tragic backstories have a tendency to be overdone.

- Don't overdo it. Your character can have an abusive mother and father. Maybe the only person in the world who likes her is her dog, who gets hit by a car. There's no need for everything in her life to go wrong.

- Don't underdo it. Say your character's mother is abusive, or so you claim. All she ever did was ground her for a month for eating a cookie. Yes, that's extreme, but it's hardly abusive.

- Don't have your character obsess over her tragic life. No one expects her to just get over it, but if she constantly whines about it people will just get annoyed with her. I'll talk more about the effects of tragic backstories in my next post.

- Do make it realistic. This applies to stories as a whole, but you're usually only allowed a contrived coincide to kick off the plot.

- Do make your character feel the negative effects of the tragic backstory

- Don't just make your character feel the positive effects of the tragic backstory.

Remember, tragic backstories are just backstories at the end of the day. You'll want to be mindful of regular rules of backstories. Such as, though you'll need to know everything that happened, you're reader doesn't need to nor should they see everything.

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