Tragic Backstory used in an attempt to create Character Depth.
In Tarzan, Samuel L Jackson runs around in the jungle with Tarzan. As they sit down in the evening, the music suddenly turns super sad, the light changes and the camera pans up real close to his face. This is typically what happens in wafer-thin blockbuster movies when its Tragic. Backstory. Time.
From a writer’s point of view, I think this example highlights using a tragic backstory to try and create some character depth. To give someone a bit of edge and make the audience (or reader) like them. The point is to make you care about that character's outcome within that story.
So... why didn't this attempted tragic backstory work in Tarzan?
Because there was absolutely zero reason for Samual L Jackson's character to reveal such a personal story at that time in the plot.
He didn't even know Tarzan that well.
Think about it.
In real life, when do you tell someone something personal (or sad) about your past?
When you know them. When you trust them. Or at least when it comes up naturally in a conversation.
You probably don't run around telling virtual strangers your personal shit because... well, its your personal shit.
That stuff is private, yo.
Tragic Backstory used to try and make us feel like two characters are Sharing a Connection.
In Kong, Tom Hiddleston (who is in this movie for some reason) is so completely flat as a character that by about halfway through, the movie makers decide it's necessary for the music to turn sad, the light to turn soft and the camera to pan up real close to his face.
And then he tells a woman he barely knows some idiot story about his dad’s watch that has nothing to do with anything.
So why were these two terrible scenes inserted into these massive blockbusters?
Pretty much as an attempt to:
This same mistake is made so often in all kinds of stories, books, television etc.
But I really don’t think the problem is in the tragic backstories themselves.
I think the tragic backstory can be a great tool in storytelling, I think writers just need to think carefully about how they use it, instead of inserting it as a quick fix for a flat character or relationship problem within their story.
And today I wanted to explore the reasons why the tragic backstory is such a popular (if often misused) idea, and how we can try to learn to use it effectively.
Firstly, why even give your character a tragic backstory?
I guess there are millions of reasons, but my personal favourite is always when it is used (effectively) to further a relationship between two characters.
The below quote explains what this can achieve:
If you can create a key moment in the novel where something special or intense or important passes between the protagonist and this secondary character, it will do wonders for your story. So many moving, poignant scenes in movies are ones where the two friends have a moment like this. It feels sometimes like a beat or pause in the story, being more reflective and slower paced. But it adds heart, and that’s what this is all about.
— CS Lakin, quote from Create Key Moments with Secondary Characters
Heart. That's what it's all about.
I couldn't agree more.
So.... how do we then use this idea effectively?
That is the big question.
For me, I think it seems to come down to two points.
Restraint and Reason.
So, these are fairly self explanatory.
Use restraint to ensure your character doesn't blab their painful backstory to just anybody in just any situation. If it's painful, then it's painful for a reason. It is much more powerful if your character doesn't want to tell their story. Instead they are compelled to.
A character that blabs their backstory can come across as melodramatic or unrealistic, and then the story loses its emotion.
It loses the heart.
And using reason just means that the situation and plot really needs to call for a tragic backstory to be revealed. This kind of thing can't just come out of nowhere (like in Kong and Tarzan), because then it feels fake and unreal, and it definitely doesn't make your reader feel anything besides awkward.
Here are my examples of the tragic backstory being done right.
And in doing so, he lets slip just a sliver of his own tragic backstory, that Jyn is not the only one to have lost everything. That he has been in this fight since he was six years old.
And that's it. He doesn't elaborate. He doesn't need to.
The impact is already there. We don't need to hear exactly what happened, who died, what the circumstances were, to understand Cassian's pain.
So this is a perfect example of using restraint (Cassain let slip a little bit of tragedy but not a long tension-sucking account of his sad past), and reason, (Cassian was driven to a point of anger through a realistic conversation, he told Jyn about his past because he was pushed too far, not because he just randomly felt like talking about it).
Remember guys, tragic backstories are emotional. And emotion is exhausting. This stuff doesn't just get bandied about casually within normal everyday conversation.
Your story has got to reflect that realism.
So what makes her change her mind?
A tragic backstory, that's what!
But this guy doesn't just tell Snow White his sad past himself, no, the film gets creative here.
She watches him sleeping, and he's twitching and sweating and freaking out. And then another character tells her that the love-interest guy dreams of fire. Every night. And Snow White finds out that his family died in a fire or whatever, and he isn't such a total bad dude after all.
This example is great because it covers reason.
For example, the love interest had zero reason to explain his horrific backstory.
So he didn't.
Another character did. But not randomly. Not out of the blue. With reason, in a way that made sense to the plot.
So anyway, this must be the freaking longest post in the history of human kind.