Throughout literature and modern media, many faults and drives for leads, damsels and villians have often been motivated by a tragic backstory so much so, that to employ one for your story may appear trite or cliche. There is, however, a way to use a tragic backstory effectively and can add an element of relatability to your characters’ development.
A way to avoid cliche is by not making the characters’ tragic backstory the focus of the narrative the entire time.
The death of Luke Skywalker’s family motivated him to join the resistance in Star Wars, Episode 4. This was his tragic backstory, however, it was not the sole focus of the trilogy. Rather it informed his decisions and made him relatable. Use the tragic backstory as a foundation for the character’s future motivations and reasons for why they decide to do the things that they do. This is a classic case of “show, don’t tell.”
Try not to make the tragic backstory your character’s defining character trait.
This ties into leaning on the backstory too much. Your character has to have other traits than being affected by the tragedy that had befallen them. Rather, what the tragedy reveal about their character? Did they become resolute and stoic or did they soften up and become kind? Difficult situations often reveal our true character so try and think through how they reacted to that awful event and what does it reveal about them as a person.
Avoid an exposition dump.
People take time to open up, particularly when an event has deeply affected them. They are not about to dump their entire life story at the feet of the reader. Rather, it’ll be offered in moments of vulnerability and often only a piece at a time. Maybe the backstory is revealed by other characters who know a small amount of what happened. By exploring a backstory this way, it feels organic and keeps the reader interested in what the characters’ deals are.
Remember, people are ultimately resilient.
Despite grief and pain, people pick themselves up and keep going in some fashion or another. At times they may indulge in self-destructive behaviour or avoid the event altogether, but in some fashion they are waking up each day and moving forward. Demonstrating the level to which a character is resilient adds depth to the tragedy and their actions afterwards and can help ensure that the tragic backstory does not come off as trite.
How have you avoided a tragic backstory becoming cliche? Is there a type of tragic backstory that’s your favourite? Let us know in the comments below! And join us on Sunday evening for our Quackchat at 5:30PM(EST) where we’ll be talking about this topic!
Emma_Clare at 12:00AM, Sept. 21, 2018
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