Last week, I attempted to convince everyone that backstory is not only essential to good characters, but vital to the existence of your story.
If I didn’t convince you last week, I doubt I’ll ever convince you, so I’ll spend no further time trying. Instead, I want to look at three different “parts” of backstory. Parts that are good or bad or different or vital or consistently missing from your average story.
Today I want to focus on a very specific type of backstory and the resulting character. They’ve become most especially popular in the last ~30 years or so, but they’ve been around since long before then.
I’m talking about the broken character, the character with a past.
The Picture of Pain
Imagine this: your character grows up on the streets, an orphan, because their parents were murdered. Now your character steals and kills to stay alive. They have scars – physical, emotional, mental, you name it – and they have learned to shove aside emotion and attachment and just survive.
Or perhaps they aren’t an orphan at all. Instead, they still live at home, under the tyranny of an abusive parent (or two). They stay because they have to protect their younger siblings from the beatings and the curses and the darkness. They endure the hurt and the pain, all the while daydreaming of a life where there parent doesn’t exist.
Or perhaps another example: your character is an adult (I know, adult characters are such a novel idea, aren’t they?) who had a perfectly fine childhood, great parents, great schooling, all of it. Except, at some point, they experience a loss (their job and/or romantic relationship are a common choice for devastating loss) that crushes them. They turn to something else in order to compensate. Whether they begin to drink or smoke or dabble in crime or hurt themselves or whatever it is, they’re broken.
People are fascinated by broken characters. We love them in novels due to one of two reasons:
a) We empathize
We feel deeply for these sorts of characters because we experienced the same sort of loss/hurt/abuse/pain. These characters remind us of… well, of us.
b) We wonder
People read stories about broken characters and wonder “what would I do?” They wonder if they would make the same choices – good or bad – or if they’d do something different.
If people like to read about characters that had a hard past, they must be worth writing, right?
See, authors also have this tendency to overdo it. They squash so much pain into one life that it’s not feasible for that character to have possibly survived.
Characters that experience pain are real. Characters that experience torture are not. I’m not talking about hanging them on a rack and flogging them (although this can be the case); I’m talking about characters that are so beaten down by everything around them that it is too painful to watch.
How does someone even imagine this character to life? This character has been so beaten down and broken and attacked and hurt and maimed and scorned. What sort of imagination creates that?
It’s okay for characters to experience pain. Loss is a part of life. Abuse is a very real horror and should be presented as such. Addiction is real. Hurt is real. Pain is real.
But that doesn’t mean we have to indulge in it.
Another blogger (who I seem to tend to link to at random times) created this post a while back about exploiting suffering in writing. It’s an excellent post that delves deeper into this idea of “too much suffering”.
The basic takeaway? Pain is okay. Excessive pain is not.
How does your character cope with tragedy? If they do indeed suffer a tragic loss, how do they move on with life?
To be extremely general, there are three ways people deal with pain:
They experience it, and then they survive. Yes, it’s pain. Yes, it hurts. They let it hurt. And then they move on. Sometimes it’s rough, somedays are harder than others. Survival is key, to them. They deal with the pain when it comes and put it behind them.
This sort of character is the least likely to come across as “broken” in the truest sense. A twinge of sadness when he walked by the restaurant he used to take his wife to, before she died. A tear or two when she curls up to sleep without dinner – again.
As I like to put it, these are the kind of character that have fallen apart and pieced themselves back together. They’re one of my favorite kinds of characters. You can tell they broke, once, but they learned how to work the hot glue gun at the craft store and they almost look… normal.
Next come the Gutter-rats. Some characters who fit this type aren’t specifically rats, nor do they necessarily live in a gutter. But their mental and emotional states clearly point to their living in a state that is less than desirable for happiness and joy.
Street urchins are a common example of this (because they also happen to live in an actual gutter), as well as characters who became addicted to something because of a tragic hurt/loss.
These characters have no real hope inside them. Even if the story is about their realizing hope is out there somewhere, they start with nothing and are often… depressing. They make the book dark and moody. That isn’t always bad, but it can be. Coupled with heavy themes and/or heavy content, this can drag a book down into the category of “that kind” that everyone reads and then wanders around wondering what the meaning of life really is (besides 42).
Gutter-rats can (and have been) used to great power and amazing themes, but they can also be hard. Spend to long drudging the bottom of their blackened souls and your reader starts to wonder about the color of your soul.
Finally, there are those characters which refuse to admit that they’re in pain. They shove it off, wear a mask.
This sort of broken character is rarer than the other two, which is what makes it so fascinating. They feel this pain, but they don’t identify its source. Whether by choice or inability, they are unable to deal with what they feel. They go on with their lives and everything is bland.
Until they learn to deal with their pain, they can’t really live.
The Denier stands at the crossroads and refuses to choose. Their life has gone static until they choose: Survive or Crash. Head for the gutter or the craft store.
How do we create empathic characters without driving their suffering to the point of excessive and unnecessary?
In some ways, it’s fairly simple, but in others it can take a lot of personal contemplation.
First, draw a line in the sand. Choose a form of suffering that makes you too uncomfortable to write about. There are so many options for pain (which is a sad fact, but still true). Many of them are too painful to even consider writing. So draw your line and stick by it. If pop culture pressures you, don’t give in. It’s up to you to decide what you write about and what your characters go through.
Second, limit individual’s pain. If your character has already been through a war and struggles with PTSD, don’t chop off their arm and toss them into a pit full of lions that just finished off his daughter. Not only is that sadistic (and not in the modern sense of “hey this is cool, that makes it twisted up”, but “there is something seriously wrong with you”), but it’s too much.
Depending on the type of pain, this limit can range from only one form of pain to a dozen.
Start at the line you drew. Then rank the pain you’ve given your character. The closer it is to your line, the smaller the number of other pains that should accompany it.
A bump on the elbow ranks low.
Losing a child ranks high.
Third, develop your character’s reaction. Are they a Survivor? A Gutter-rat? A Denier? Delve into this reaction and learn how they tick. Get out the glue gun, the gutter, the procrastination (their procrastination, not yours), and figure out how they work.
I thought about using the word “diverse” instead of unique, but I’ve been using that word a lot recently, so I decided to branch out and try something different (you know you see what I did there).
Don’t content yourself with the pain that every other character experiences.
Yes, being an orphan is painful.
But so is losing a child in a miscarriage.
So is failing to get into college after dreaming of it and making plans based off it.
So is being excluded from a social group, this clique or that.
Be unique [diverse]. Let your characters form their choices and let the pain stay at a natural level. If a character has a painless backstory, that might be okay. And if it’s riddled with pain… well, it’d better have a good reason.
What about you? Do you have broken characters? How have they coped? What broke them? Leave a comment and share!
Does Your Story need a Dragon? (Vera Aisling)