by Nick Conrad
We’ve mentioned before that backstory, while important, shouldn’t define the character. Likewise, backstory shouldn’t be defined by traumatic events alone. Bad things happen to good people all the time, but there’s such a thing as too much.
PROBLEM: The same bad things repeatedly happen to the character throughout the story.
EXAMPLE: The heroine is still coping with a rape she experienced. Then she’s attacked again. It happens in real life, and it can be a strong plot point—having to face one’s past by experiencing something similar. If it happens repeatedly throughout a story, though, the reader will start wondering what the character is doing to attract such misfortune. Their suspension of disbelief will be tested, and they’re going to stop empathizing with the character and start resenting her.
HOW TO FIX: Don’t let the tragedy become the character. And in some cases, consider what something that happens to the character says about them. If the hero is a warrior facing battle daily, of course he’ll get injured. But if he comes home torn to shreds every other day, readers will wonder what kind of warrior he really is.
PROBLEM: The backstory is full of tragedy that transcends belief, sometimes overpowering the plot altogether.
EXAMPLE: When young, the hero saw his mother killed by men who were never caught. Years later, they came after him and killed his girlfriend, but he escaped. Then persons unknown blew up his apartment complex, killing his wife and child. Now someone’s after the hero’s new squeeze. Not only does it sound like a slasher film, but the guy also seems like bad news—he’s terribly unlucky and he has a ton of baggage.
HOW TO FIX: Use moderation. There is no one-tragedy-per-lifetime limit, but don’t overdo it. Otherwise, not only will it be less plausible, but the tragedy will eclipse the character.
PROBLEM: A character experienced a traumatic event for which they needlessly blame themselves. The less at fault they were, the guiltier they feel. This is often used to make the character seem more sympathetic.
EXAMPLE: The character experienced a violent assault and/or had a loved one who was assaulted or murdered. The key factor is that this was clearly done to the character, and this passivity defines the character.
HOW TO FIX: Feeling guilt over a tragedy is normal and understandable, and many excellently written characters do exactly that. When a character is so overwrought that the tragedy permeates every aspect of their being (or when so much tragedy occurs that it tests believability), the character becomes a caricature. The reader shouldn’t want to shout, “Snap out of it!” The character’s anger and grief are expected, but hopefully they’re fleshed out enough that there’s something else there too—something to make them real and genuinely sympathetic. While it’s never fair to expect characters to just “get over it”, it’s important that they start the transition from being a victim to being a survivor before the story is over.
PROBLEM: There are convenient holes in the effects of the traumatic event.
EXAMPLE: The heroine was raped and struggles to trust again, but when she meets the hero she immediately jumps into bed with him because his love is so strong that it “heals” her. The story moves on with no mention of the earlier rape—unless the plot slows, and then the past trauma comes back to haunt the characters, taking over the plot completely.
HOW TO FIX: Make sure the tragic event and the character’s feelings about it are dealt with in a logical and consistent manner. If the hero has trouble trusting women, why is he nonchalantly giving his new fling the keys to his apartment?
When tragedy strikes, of course it takes over the lives of the people affected. But when it happens in your story, don’t let the tragedy bury all that character development you’ve established.