Basic Tips To Create Better Characters With Tragic & Traumatic Backstories
Table of Contents
- First, ask yourself why you're giving your character a tragic or traumatic backstory.
- Ask yourself how much trauma/tragedy your character actually needs.
- The character's angst over the trauma/tragedy should not become a plot-consuming blackhole, and should be kept in perspective compared to other characters' troubles.
- Remember, not everything your character does should be explicitly or overtly tied to the trauma/tragedy.
- The trauma/tragedy should make sense in-universe.
- People who've gone through trauma don't generally tell people they've only just met all about it.
- Read up on what real people who have experienced similar problems have gone through, if you can.
First, ask yourself why you're giving your character a tragic or traumatic backstory.
Are you giving your character this backstory to build up/explain what kind of person your character is now? Or are you doing it mainly to make readers or other characters feel sorry for your character, or to make your character seem more badass/tough for having survived the ordeal? Or are you doing it mainly to give your character a reason to run away from home and/or have nobody to be attached to so xe can go hang out with the cool characters with nothing to pull xir away? The first one is a legitimate reason to give your character a tragic/traumatic backstory. The rest are spurious at best.
Even worse, trauma/tragedy often is used as little more than a device to give an intended love interest a reason to want to lavish care and affection on xir. Now, there's nothing wrong with a character receiving comfort after getting through a hardship, or during/after a post-traumatic stress disorder episode, or even after the character simply tells another character of xir less-than-happy past. That's perfectly fine. But this should not be the end goal of the trauma, nor should the snuggles end up curing the issue, particularly if your character is supposed to have PTSD - post-traumatic stress disorder is not something that can be 'cured' or counseled away by a few snuggles and hugs. While it can be lessened over time (and it can take a very long time), real-life treatment for PTSD usually works toward helping a sufferer live and cope with the symptoms they've developed for that very reason.
(And speaking of PTSD, not all trauma-related issues are PTSD. There is also Acute Stress Disorder, which often feels very much like PTSD, but goes away in under a month. Some people also seem to develop a very similar condition can last longer than a month, but still isn't quite PTSD as it can be worked away in a matter of months.)
Benjamin Linus from Lost is a good example of a tragic/traumatic backstory used to good effect. Linus's mother died giving birth to him, which his father blamed him for, which lead to his father abusing him. Denied parental love and approval as a child, Linus still craved it into adulthood. His need for approval became a motivational force behind many of his actions, which he did in an attempt to win the love and approval of a surrogate parental figure, even to the detriment of others.
Kira Nerys from Star Trek: Deep Space 9 is another good example - the hardships Kira faced growing up during the Cardassian occupation of her homeworld of Bajor as well as the ones faced when she was a member of the Bajoran Resistance forged her into the tough, determined, decisive, pragmatic, and prickly woman she was for most of the show - the woman who had to learn to stop fighting and to start trusting and letting others in.
While the effects of the bad things characters in the Harry Potter series go through are not always made explicitly clear, a look into each and every character will show that everything they have gone through has affected them somehow. Harry's treatment at the hands of the Dursleys created a child who has no innate respect for adults, let alone authority figures - Harry's respect must be earned; it's never given freely and unconditionally. On the other hand, Percy Weasley, whose family was mocked and scorned by other purebloods due to Arthur Weasley's fascination with Muggle things, tries desperately to distance himself from his family's reputation by associating himself with "respectable" figures.
Ask yourself how much trauma/tragedy your character actually needs.
Stop and ask yourself: how much hardship is actually necessary to explain why your character is in the situation xe is now and/or to explain why your character thinks, feels, acts, etc. the way xe does now? Is it really necessary that every other student at school bully and torment your character, or could you achieve the same thing with just a few particularly ornery students? Does your character need to have been chained up and beaten every night on top of being isolated and forbidden from associating with peers? Do your character's parents absolutely have to tell xir that they wished xe's never been born to leave your character with a damaged self-image, or could more subtle jabs like "I wish you were more like your sister!" or "What, do you want me to give you a medal or something?" achieve the effect you want?
Also, something to remember is that smaller and more subtle forms of trauma and abuse actually have the potential to have a much bigger emotional impact on your audience than extreme ones. Because the extreme ones are so rare in real life, they're going to be beyond the ken of the vast majority of your audience. However, many people have dealt with smaller forms of abuse and trauma, so they'll find characters with less-extreme experiences easier to connect to.
So, ask yourself how much trauma/tragedy is strictly necessary for the character and plot and don't go too far beyond that, and you'll probably do all right - and you might even end up with a far more powerful and compelling backstory for it.
The character's angst over the trauma/tragedy should not become a plot-consuming blackhole, and should be kept in perspective compared to other characters' troubles.
Although it varies from person to person, people generally have a limited capacity to care about your character's angst - and this capacity can go down quickly when there's an otherwise-engaging plot going on or when pressing situations are pushed aside to focus on your character's angst - eg, when the villain about to fire the mega-cannon of doom. Similarly, if the plot and/or other characters treat your character having a flashback to a traumatic incident as more important than another character's child going missing or xir house burning down with everything xe owned inside it, audiences are more likely to perceive your character's angst as wangst and/or feel like your story is running on Protagonist Centered Morality - and you don't want that.
Dragging out a character's angst for too long can also make people perceive your character as wangsty, especially if the character seems to want to do nothing but wallow in xir misery rather than trying to do something about or move past the pain. Again, how long is too long is subjective, but if your character goes on for ages without doing anything (at the very least trying to move on or learning to cope), people will eventually get fed up sooner or later, particularly if it seems to be preventing the plot from moving on.
Also, always keep in mind that whatever awful event your character has suffered, it's probably not a one-of-a-kind experience. Getting bullied, losing loved ones, and even ending up in the hands of despicably abusive and exploitative people happens to all kinds of people. Yes, it's horrible - but if you play up your character's pain as one-of-a-kind or as if it's deeper and more profound than anyone else's pain (especially the pain of those who should be equally, if not even more affected by the event) you're going to make your character seem self-centered, or worse - make yourself seem self-centered because it's clear that you think your pet character's problems are the most important thing in the universe.
Remember, not everything your character does should be explicitly or overtly tied to the trauma/tragedy.
While a character's tragic/traumatic past may have helped to forge who xe is now, real people aren't going to constantly be doing things that relate to the trauma/tragedy, and they're certainly not going to be thinking about it all of the time. Batman wouldn't be Batman without the death of his parents, but he also has a life wherein he does things that don't relate to his parents' deaths. Kira Nerys may have been forged by the hardships she faced on Bajor, but by and large she was mainly focused on the present, as well as her own spirituality.
The trauma/tragedy should make sense in-universe.
Does the tragic or traumatic backstory make sense in the context of the universe? For example, one next-gen Harry Potter OC I encountered was bullied because her parents were "evil" and pretty much everyone at Hogwarts knew it. Furthermore, the character had to live with her evil parents during the summers and work in their store. This is a perfect example of trying to have your angst cake and eat it, too - if it was that well-known that her parents were that evil, why were they still walking free? It would have been far more plausible for the parents to have been in prison (which would give the students reason to be wary of the OC, but she wouldn't be able to live with her parents), or for them to have successfully covered up their crimes (in which case she'd have to live with her parents, but wouldn't have to endure the bullying to that degree).
The above doesn't just apply to Harry Potter fan characters, either - the same basic concept would be equally nonsensical in any universe wherein the story was set in a place with a functional law enforcement and justice system. Whatever the universe you're writing for, stop and ask yourself: is that the way the world really works?
Another character who was supposed to have been abused by her father claimed that her father had essentially paid off protective services to stop them from doing anything about her abuse. Precisely why that wouldn't work is covered in Tips To Write Better & More Believable Coverups.
Does your character's past rely on certain characters behaving out-of-character, or showing abusive tendencies that were never even hinted at in canon? For example, let's say a character is the child of Fluttershy from My Little Pony. Based on what we've seen from her character, it would be plausible that Fluttershy might actually lose her temper and shout at her children occasionally (though she'd feel pretty bad about it afterward). On the other hand, Fluttershy punishing a child by locking xir in the basement and denying xir food would be pretty far-fetched. Applejack might be the parent who thinks she always knows better than her children, but it's unlikely she'd use physical violence. Twilight Sparkle might be the distant parent who gets wrapped up in her work while pushing her own child a bit too hard to succeed academically, but probably wouldn't verbally belittle her child. Indeed, if you want to create tension between your character and xir parents, it's very possible to create realistic and plausible reasons for it without going into full-bore physical abuse.
Similarly, keep the tragedy proportionate to the universe. Your character's parents dying and xir being sent to a vermin-infested orphanage which burned down forcing xir to go to a workhouse where everyone hated xir and the workman abused xir until xe grew up and fell in love with someone who died of TB might fit into something written by Lemony Snicket or Victor Hugo, but would most probably be overdoing it in stories set in more lighthearted universes.
People who've gone through trauma don't generally tell people they've only just met all about it.
A common scenario in fiction is that days or even minutes after the characters meet each other, at least one of them is sharing the intimate details of xir horrible and traumatic past. In real life, most people tend not to be so free about sharing things like these, particularly if they're accustomed to keeping their true thoughts and feelings to themselves, and/or if there is perceived shame or stigma attached to the subject matter of the secret.
Depending on the person, it can take months or even years before they're ready to start talking about their experiences, and even then only with people they have come to trust over this period of time. And if a person has learned to be distrustful or that it's not acceptable to talk about one's feelings and traumas (eg, because it would just unnecessarily burden others) or that talking about them would bring shame and even ostracism, don't count on them to start talking anytime soon.
If you want to give people some idea that your character has been through a bad time early on, check out Dropping In Characterization Without Dragging The Story for some ideas on how you can allude to it or drop in little tidbits about it here and there without dumping out the whole thing at once.
Read up on what real people who have experienced similar problems have gone through, if you can.
There are many people who have gone through traumatic/tragic situations who have put their stories online, or have spoken about them in interviews and such. A search for "(type of traumatic event) survivor stories" will often bring up results.
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