The #1 Key To Relatable Characters: Backstory

The #1 Key to Relatable Characters: Backstory

The #1 Key To Relatable Characters: BackstoryPart 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 upon in 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:

A raccoon.

A. Raccoon.

A Rac.Coon.

Seriously.

Guardians of the Galaxy Concept Art

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.

Guardians of the Galaxy Ship

Rocket Racoon Laughing Guardians of the Galaxy

  • The upbeat and highly nostalgic ’80s soundtrack could practically have carried the film in its own right.

Dancing Baby Groot Guardians of the Galaxy

  • It finally and fully tied much-foreshadowed über-villain Thanos into the storyline.

Guardians of the Galaxy Thanos

Guardians of the Galaxy Hero Walk

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).

Guardians of the Galaxy Peter Quill Little Boy Abducted

  • Gamora

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.

Gamora Guardians of the Galaxy

  • Rocket Raccoon

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”).

Guardians of the Galaxy Rocket Raccoon Aint 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.

Drax and Rocket Guardians of the Galaxy

 

  • Groot

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.

I am Groot Guardians of the Galaxy

3 Ways a Backstory Ghost Brings Your Characters to Life

A well-chosen Ghost brings several important dimensions to any character:

1. Motivation

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.

Groot's Lights Guardians of the Galaxy

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!).

Guardians of the Galaxy 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.

Guardians of the Galaxy Prison LIneup

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.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about why The Avengers: Age of Ultron‘s plot twists were disrespectful to its viewers.

Previous Posts in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What’s the Ghost in your character’s backstory? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Seems I’m a week late on this post, but it is spot on what I’m doing at the moment.

    I started my rewrite because as I approached an important argument between my MC and his father, I realized that Dad had no voice to that point. There would be little context.

    What started as a teen romance has grown to larger aspects of growing up emotionally, and a bit late in age. The MC’s Ghost is his relationship with his father, who has always pushed his son to put forth more effort in using his great skills. This is what happened with my own father, and the way he handled it left a lot of anxieties and scars.

    Now I’m exploring Dad’s backstory and his Ghost, in how he related to his father, and with K.M.’s guidance I’m able to use subtext to show when things get uncomfortable. In these last few paragraphs that I’ve written, Grandpa is in the hospital.

    ===

    Mom sat beside Grandma and took her hand. “How has he been lately?”

    “He was putting on some weight and been more tired lately, but nothing too bad, considering his age – and maybe that’s the problem.”

    I leaned forward to see Grandma and asked, “What do you mean?”

    “You know how hard it is to get him to go to the doctor’s when he’s feeling good? Not enough time, too much money, and they’re just trying to pump him full of pills.”

    Dad grunted, “Hmph – stubborn.”

    Grandma tilted her head and frowned. “Jerry’s taken over the heavy lifting, but you try getting Cal off that tractor. He’s out there every day, and then he’s always wanting to drive the truck down to the Snyder’s plant himself.” Then she leaned in to see me and wagged her finger. “You better not be eating any Utz chips!”

    “You don’t have to worry about me, Grandma.”

    ===

    Later Grandma scolds Dad for seeming to resent growing up on a farm. He holds off his
    reaction until they get to the motel, then spills out to Mom how his father has been doing the same thing every day since the age of 12 (60 years). Dad wanted to do better, but did he peak at 22? He’s been teaching the same lessons year in and year out. He’s afraid that in another 20 years he’ll still be stuck in that same spot. And then you die.

    Personally, what I am proud of is that even now in my 50’s I am still constantly learning and growing. Knowing where my story is going, I can have all this point to that coming event where Dad blows up over his disappointment with his son.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nice. It’s always great to explore antagonist’s backstories. Puts them and their motivations in an entirely different light.

  2. How do you know what stuff from your backstory is important to write about in your story and what doesn’t need to be relayed?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Always ask yourself if the information is necessary to a) advance the plot in the main story or b) help readers understand what’s happening or what a character’s motivation is.

  3. Thank you for this! It got me thinking about my MC’s Ghost, which I hadn’t really nailed down even though I knew his back story in pretty good detail. Turns out it was there all along, I just hadn’t realized it and so hadn’t looked at it under the microscope like I needed to. Things are flowing much better now. 🙂
    Also, this post made me realize something: Flat Arc characters can have Ghosts that fuel their Truth just like the Change and Fall Arc-ers have Ghosts that fuel their Lies.
    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe Drax and Thanos’-adopted-daughter-gone-rogue (oops, forgot her name!) are both Flat Arc characters and good examples of this. It’s been a while since I watched the movie, so I could be wrong. Another example (that I believe you have pointed out before) is Thor in his second movie, the first movie being his Backstory and Ghost.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’d have to rewatch the film to be sure about Drax’s and Gamora’s arcs. Gamora definitely strikes me as a Flat Arc, but Drax seems a little too… unbalanced. :p However, you’re absolutely correct that Ghosts can and do influence Flat Arcs. The difference is that, in a Flat Arc, the character has already come to peace with her Ghost (even if it still hurts). Rather than fueling her Lie as it would in a Change Arc, it is instead the reason she found the Truth before the story ever started.

  4. If your character’s backstory is really cool, maybe you’re writng the wronf book! Would that backstory make a book or short story on its own?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Certainly. If the backstory is the more interesting of the two, write it instead!

  5. Have you seen Guardians of the Galaxy 2? What did you think?

Trackbacks

  1. […] “emotional issues,” isn’t enough. Author K.M. Wieland has discussed storytelling technique in the Marvel Universe and pointed out, rightly, that characters do need […]

  2. […] K.M. Wieland describes in her blog for writers, it is a character’s backstory (or history) that makes a reader identify […]

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