The #1 Key to Relatable Characters: Backstory
Part 10 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel
Ever stop to think about why you enjoy backstory?
I receive lots of questions from writers about backstory, most of it along the lines of: I love my backstory soooo much. How can I cram as much as possible of it into the main story?
I hear you. Because I love my backstory too. There’s one simple reason why we all love it so much.
Backstory is the key to discovering our characters.
Backstory is Ernest Hemingway’s 9/10ths of the iceberg under the water. It’s the delicious subtext. It’s what gives depth and breadth to a character—even (and here’s the magic part) when the backstory itself is barely touched uponin the main story.
Whenever I write a character who just isn’t working out for me, the problem is inevitably that I don’t have a grasp on his backstory. If you don’t know where a character came from, then you don’t yet really know who that character is.
That’s why writers love backstory. Turns out, that’s why readers love it too.
How a Romp Like Guardians of the Galaxy Effortlessly Created Relatable Characters
This brings us to Part 10 of our ongoing exploration of why so many of us are loving the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Guardians of the Galaxy officially kicked off the series’ Cosmic storyline with a rompy space opera that, at first glance, seemed doomed to fail. I remember seeing the original concept art for the movie way back and thinking:
I wasn’t the only one. Based on a littler known Marvel storyline, starring what was then a largely non-A-list cast, and being deliberately funky in about every way known to late-summer movies, it seemed like Marvel was really stretching on this one.
At this point, retrospect tells us Marvel’s dark horse turned out to be a massive winner for almost all of those same reasons, and more:
- It’s a good old-fashioned space opera, in the best tradition.
- It balances spot-on satire of the heroic genre, without actually sacrificing that genre.
- The upbeat and highly nostalgic ’80s soundtrack could practically have carried the film in its own right.
- It finally and fully tied much-foreshadowed über-villain Thanos into the storyline.
- It pulled off a near facsimile of The Avengers‘ seemingly effortless trickof harnessing a crazily diverse and yet utterly charming cast of five (count ’em five) main characters.
If you think that’s easy, think again. For most of us, presenting one charming main character is hard enough.
How did Guardians manage this impressive trick?
Easy! It brought all its main characters to life, in a minimum of time, by grounding each and every one of them and their motivations in a pertinent backstory.
What’s the Ghost in Your Character’s Backstory?
It’s not enough to just give your character a history. The fact that she worked as a checkout clerk at Safeway when she was in high school is not going to secure your readers’ undying love and loyalty.
Nope, what your character needs is a Ghost. This is the wound in his backstory. It’s something that haunts him. (Because ghosts haunt people, get it?) It’s something so big and painful that it shaped him into the person he is today.
Consider the Guardians’ Ghosts:
PETER QUILL / STARLORD
As the protagonist, Quill’s backstory is given the most screen time. In a lengthy early segment, he is a young boy, waiting at the hospital for his mother to die of cancer. Something this traumatic is usually more than enough to create a powerful Ghost. But that’s just the the start for poor Peter. As he runs out of the hospital after his mother dies, he’s kidnapped by aliens—never to return to Earth (so far).
The adopted daughter of Thanos starts out as a seeming antagonist, a woman entirely with it—especially in comparison to Quill’s often-clueless bravado. But when she betrays Thanos and joins forces with Quill, her actions make absolute sense in light of the Ghost in her past: Thanos killed her family before “adopting” her and turning her into his private assassin.
Did I express disgruntlement about the presence of a talking raccoon in a Marvel movie? Obviously, that was before I met the wise-cracking, emotionally twisted, touchy little furball. Once you get over the fact that he is indeed a talking raccoon, he becomes arguably the most compelling and interesting character in the story. Part of that is his delightfully smart mouth and part of it is his strange bond with the gentle Groot. But no small part of it is his backstory Ghost: as a lab experiment, ruthlessly tortured into his unique sentient existence (“Ain’t no thing like me ‘cept me”).
DRAX THE DESTROYER
The literal-minded alien collosus Drax is arguably the least developed of the main characters. But he works for two primary reasons. 1) He’s funny in unexpected ways (“Nothing goes over my head!”). 2) He has a serious Ghost motivating all his actions in the movie: his wife and children were massacred.
Groot is special. Groot does not have a motive, a Ghost, or a backstory—as far as we know. But something obviously happened to him to make him the way he is.
3 Ways a Backstory Ghost Brings Your Characters to Life
A well-chosen Ghost brings several important dimensions to any character:
Characters never act in vacuum. There must always be a reason why they choose to pursue their story goals and use the methods they do. The Ghost is always the most important cause in your character’s backstory; as such, the main story, in many ways (and sometimes in its entirety) is the effect of the Ghost.
HOW GUARDIANS GETS THIS RIGHT:
As you can see from the above list, almost all the main characters are directly motivated in their story goals by their backstory Ghosts. Gamora and Drax are out to subvert Thanos because of his past treatment of them. Quill and Rocket are both compensating for their past pain in pursuing mercenary gains at first, and then realizing the family dynamic they’re creating amongst themselves is what they really need in order to be complete.
HOW YOU CAN USE YOUR CHARACTER’S GHOST TO CREATE MOTIVATION:
First ask yourself: What does your character want in this story? What is his main goal?
Now ask yourself: Why does he want it? Sometimes the Ghost will be the direct answer (as it is for Drax). Other times, the Ghost will be the source of a deeper personal inadequacy, fueling the Lie the Character Believes, which, in turn, prompts him to pursue the story goal in an attempt to salve this personal wound (as Quill does).
2. Mystery and Subtext
This is possibly my favorite aspect of the backstory Ghost. When you dream up a vast and interesting backstory for your character, you have the opportunity to create both a mystery that piques readers’ curiosity and a sense of subtext and meaning underlying even your character’s simplest actions.
HOW GUARDIANS GETS THIS RIGHT:
Quill’s backstory is largely spelled out right from the start. But there are gaps: Who is his “angelic” father? And even without the gaps, his Earth childhood and his musical bond with his mother grounds his character throughout the story, provides context for his actions (saving Gamora), and foreshadows his climactic decisions (dance off!).
The other characters’ backstories remain more subtextual, allowing readers to understand enough about their motivations, while still leaving plenty up to readers’ imaginations and curiosity.
HOW YOU CAN USE YOUR CHARACTER’S GHOST TO CREATE MYSTERY AND SUBTEXT
When I get questions like the one in the first paragraph, in which writers want to know how they can cram as much of their backstory as possible into the main story, my chief bit of advice is always: wait.
As much as you want to share all this good stuff, you will almost always create a more powerful backstory by not sharing all of it upfront.
Tell readers only what they need to know when they need to know it, but sow clues and hints along the way. Make your readers crazy to know the truth about your character’s past and they’ll keep reading for that reason alone.
3. Empathy and Understanding
When you share the things your character has suffered, you immediately give readers an opportunity to relate to this characters’ pain via their own pain. As Rocket says, “We all got dead people.”
This also gives you a vast opportunity to get readers to understand your character, his motivation, and his reasons for choosing to act in sometimes less than admirable ways. A dark backstory Ghost won’t excuse a character’s bad behavior, but it will help readers hold off on judging him too harshly.
HOW GUARDIANS GETS THIS RIGHT:
With the arguable exception of Groot, every single character in this story is either an outright scumbag or has made at least a few questionable choices. The trailer shows them in a mugshot lineup at a maximum security prison, while a guard rattles off their many crimes. This is not the Good Citizen Brigade, and few of us would trust these people to sit at the breakfast table with our children.
And yet… we still love them. We don’t judge them for their past (and sometimes current) sins. We accept them largely because their backstory Ghosts have allowed us to understand why they are the way they are and why they have chosen to act as they do. For the very small amount of time the movie spends on backstory, this is a huge reward to be reaped in return.
HOW YOU CAN USE YOUR CHARACTER’S GHOST TO EVOKE EMPATHY AND UNDERSTANDING:
Think I’m going to tell you to come up with the most pathetic sob story you can think of? Nope. In fact, pouring on the melodrama can have exactly the opposite effect.
The key to creating a backstory Ghost that will resonate with readers and invest them in your characters is simple:
Make sure the ghost directly relates to:
a) the main plot
b) the character’s goal
c) the character’s motivation
d) all of the above.
For example, Gamora’s ghost would have been far less effective had she become an orphan simply because her parents happened to die of E. coli. But because her Ghost is the direct cause of her having acted as an assassin for Thanos all those years, we forgive her unforgivable actions without a second thought.
Backstory is indeed one of the most vastly powerful tools in an author’s array. But don’t wield it like a random shotgun. Focus on the Ghost and the ways in which it can directly power and enhance your main story—and you’ll end up with a backstory your readers will love as much as you do.