So, as an editor, a lot of stories cross my desk every month. I'm also a writer, though, and that means that writing a good story isn't just a matter of being a spectator. I mentioned in a recent post that sexual assault is often used for female characters as a sort of plot device--an easy way to give them a tragic backstory and offer a motive for being both defensive of themselves and prickly. However, that post also outlined the issues with it. On reading it, my partner challenged me, "Okay, so how can most writers craft a good character without using that as a plot device?"
That's what I'm going to talk about today. Obviously, I've already covered one base, but I really think we can get more creative with ways to give your character that challenge. Before we get going, just a note--I'm going to keep saying "heroes", but all of this applies equally to heroines or nonhumans/non-binary heroes as well! I'm also going to focus a bit on fantasy and sci fi in particular, so keep in mind that you may have to adapt things based on your setting and genre a bit. And obviously, they're not set in stone, but do read them before you run off to break them.
So, why should your character "be programmed with the most tragic backstory ever written"?
Rule 1--They Don't Have To
Shocking, right? You can always give your character a surprisingly healthy history and then just load the tragedy and conflict on as events play out through your story. Never be afraid to hurt your characters on stage! They can't be too precious. Conversely, if you find yourself wanting to smash your heroes' hearts a bit too often, maybe pull back on a a bit. If I had a dollar for every time a manuscript had gone overboard on the tragedy department, I'd have a solid gold computer. Jenny Kirkette doesn't have to be an orphan whose pet beagle died in a horrific transporter accident to be on an uneven footing during the events of the story.
Rule 2--Know the Difference Between Pathos and Bathos
Hyperbole is *not* your friend in a serious manu--unless other characters poke fun at your character's unfortunate circumstances or there's inherent absurdity to the tragedy. It worked for Lemony Snicket, but I wouldn't call tragedy-overload a recommended style. It's hard to use. Pathos is, simply, an appeal to your audience's emotions. Bathos is transitioning from the exalted to the absurd. While Christopher Moore is a master of bathos, and can actually make some moving stories from the contrast, but it's not easy to do. I keep pressing the yellow 'caution' sign to make it light up here, but it's important to know when your backstory is so sad it's gone all the way to being silly. There's a balance point between tragic, heartbreaking, and tragedy overload--at 'tragedy overload', the audience's brains shut down and can't handle any more sadness. They have to giggle to deal with with things. (This is the same part of your brain that thinks Holocaust jokes and other offensive, tragic subjects are funny.) Be aware of that when you're writing.
Rule 3--Mind Your Cliches
I mentioned sexual assault above. It's one of the gender-bound cliches; however, it's seldom used for male characters. Cliches are actually quite fine to use as long as you spice them up a bit. Consider gender-swapping them, for instance. Losing a mother motivates quite a few sons to seek revenge, but that's fine for a girl, too, instead of losing her father. Brothers and sisters are great targets, and lovers are traditional. Friends are less often used, and that's a shame, because I think we all know that in real life, friends can be as close as family, too. Adopted siblings are a good one. However, do be aware that they are cliches, instead of turning a blind eye. If you're going to have alien bandits capture your human hero's girlfriend and tie her to the space elevator tracks, be aware that it's been done before.
Rule 4--Gender-Swapping Is Your Friend
If you are using a cliche, try to do something different with it. Heck, this goes for less-overused ideas as well. Put a character in a situation that would not necessarily conform to their gender or cultural expectations. If you're in a fantasy or sci fi setting, this is doubly true. Don't limit yourself to Terran norms! If readers can suspend disbelief enough for dragons and magic and interstellar travel that's faster than light, they can handle having a sister rescue her brother, a mother rescuing her child, or a father who's been captured. Remember to think outside the normal box of boy-save-girl or girl-gets-hurt-by-boys-automatically. Your readers will love you for it.
Source. Above: Your main character.
Rule 5--Go All the Way
If you're going for a cliche, don't be half-hearted. This goes for any sort of tragedy, really. Mind Rule 2, but a lot of readers do like it when authors amp up the sadness. Oh, sure, subtlety is important, but it's okay for something to wreck your character's life. After all, tragedies don't just conveniently come back whenever you need to talk about them. They keep characters up at night. Maybe your hero has flashbacks and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Triggers are a convenient way to add to tension and realism--the smell of whiskey or Martian flowers or the colour octarine might remind your character of that fateful night in a way they can't forget. Addictions are a 'fun' way to add consequences, too. Remember--tragedy doesn't exist in a bubble.
Rule 6--Motivation Does Not Equal Reactions
Is your hero doing what they have to as a result of someone else's tragedy? How do they feel about it? Maybe they're annoyed because it's not really their war and they just want to go home. That ambiguity is great for having your character switch sides or even switch back! Is your hero inclined to forgive the person who hurt them, but feeling forced to go through with their revenge? Honour works both ways. What if the character's heart just isn't in it? Conversely, you can have your character go to some really dark extremes for revenge, even go overboard, but if you do that, make sure other characters (and not just a single, often female, token) criticize their choices. Just because your character has a motivation, doesn't mean it will determine their reaction. People change over time and consider their personal tragedies differently.
Rule 7--Sympathy For the Devil
Maybe your character understands why her commanding officer left her family to be devoured by the ravenous space wolves on the mine orbiting Betelgeuse--because it meant saving thousands of people in the colony ship. Just because your character is driven to revenge, doesn't mean you should hate on your antagonist or villain all the time. That leads to boring antagonists, and lack of conflict. Furthermore, making your villain/antagonist sympathetic will create distress in your main character. Distress is your friend! A strong villain is almost more important than a strong lead. Make sure their motivations make sense.
Why is your character's backstory important? Does it really add to the story, or is it cleverly-disguised filler? Is it exposition, clogging up the beginning, or is it revealed slowly? If you're stumped, it's okay to be mysterious. Sometimes it's good to discover your character's motivation along with the audience. And for a first draft, well, anything goes. You're going to fix it anyway. You can also map out multiple possibilities for the background if you're not sure about it. Above all else, make sure your character's tragedy adds to the story rather than clogging it up or slowing it down.
So, that's my list of recommendations! Hopefully it's set your plot bunnies to chewing at the lettuce in the garden. If you're feeling doubt over your story's direction, that's okay too. Remember, no-one's going to judge you for rewriting or playing with things.
Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the phuquerie. Find Michelle on Twitter, Facebook, and on Tumblr, and find her work on Amazon. Check back on the blog to see when one of the irregular posts has careened onto your feed. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!