Friday, March 14, 2008

When Tragedy Strikes

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.


Anonymous said...

How much is too much?

Hello, how’s it going? I’m currently finishing up a project for submission, and I like to read this blog almost everyday. (I really appreciate the advise.) Anyway, I’m a little concerned about this “back story” talk. I’ve always thought backstory helped flesh out a character to explain why he or she is responding a certain way in a certain situation. For example, I recently read Brynn Paulin’s “On Your Knees,” a story I really, really liked. But part of what I like about it was the heroine’s backstory. The author took the time to explain how she was overworked and always in charge, both at work and in some past relationships. So she really enjoyed giving up power to a Dom. Had I not known about her backstory, I may have just said, “oh-hum,” so he’s chained her up and she likes it…big deal. But because I knew her history, I found the exchange of power intriguing and compelling.

But hey, I may be just weird. I guess my question is, do your readers prefer a story that has little to no backstory? Should I focus more on imagery and description?

I guess I feel a little lost on this point.

Thanks for the great blog

ECPI Editors said...

Glad you're enjoying our blog!

Like all things related to plot and character development, the key is striking a balance. Of course backstory is good—it lays the groundwork for your characters. (Our most recent Thursday Thirteen shows some nice examples.) And tragedy plays a significant role in many real-life backstories, so it makes sense that it would happen to fictional characters, too. But like all other elements of plot and character development, the backstory is best when it doesn't overshadow the other elements—the information blends so well into the story that you don't notice any kind of departure from the plot. It's when the backstory cuts into the plot and reads like an interruption (or else is just plain hard to swallow) that it can cause problems.


Dave Fragments said...

Bernita Harris sent me over here to read your post after I put this comment on her blog about the reverse Deus Ex Machina, the Diabolus Ex Machina... You might find it interesting.

I read and watch books, TV shows, movies mostly based on their ability to be in some way realistic. That is te essence of our dislike about a Deux ex Machina (DEM) insertion into the plot. These are plot elements that are insufficiently foreshadowed or altogether outrageous. I won't repeat that discussion from EE's blog.

They didn't however, discuss the diabolus ex machina that you mention. It seems fashionable in these days to have characters with the most abhorrent childhoods possible. Half of the programs on TV have characters with dysfunctional families (from emotional neglect to outright molestation, from drugged out siblings to oversexed parents, or that love affair that scarred the protagonist's soul for life.). Some of the last books I've read suffer from this.

It's like the author shoved a bunch of faults down the reader's gullet rather than work out a flawed person. When we read MacBeth, we discover an ambitious but not too bright soldier who listens to his wife and descends into murder. MacBeth doesn't have lines about his upbringing or how badly his parents treated him or his schoolmates who beat him, none of that.

One of my favorite actresses, Julianna Margules, just started a new show and her character is "forcibly" more interesting because her son was kidnapped and never found. I hate to be cruel, but that type of mental anguish doesn't make a flawed and interesting character. It makes for a morose and moody backstory that intrudes on every detail of the current story. Anytime the writers want to twitch the main character, they bring up the past. Cheap and cheesy.

Another example is the latest version of Battlestar Galactica. I liked the first year because of its darkness, but now, they are just suffering at every turn. It has descended into pain and agony - they all hurt, they all conspire, they all suffer - - - without relief. Even the villains are not true villains but suffering souls on the journey to "something that happened before." I half expect Job to appear with all his boils. Some voice keeps telling all of them "this has happened before" just like Yahweh and the Devil sit sipping tea and discussing Job. DIabolus Ex Machina.

Em said...

Mr. Conrad,
I think you do a great job explicating how important it is to find and walk that fine line between enough and too much. You deal with this controversial and potentially emotional issue with great sensitivity and intelligence. I always enjoy reading your Redlines and Deadlines contributions.