Everyone has come across the broody hero with the tragic backstory before; dark, mopey, and often more than a little pity seeking, this archetype is not only common but also incredibly difficult to write well. First, I’m going to lay out why tragic backstories and brooding tend to cause problems. Then, for the truly brave, I’ve included 6 tips for writing these things well.
Bad things are supposed to happen to your characters. In several other posts I have mentioned that it is necessary to harm your characters and take things away from them in order to raise the stakes. But this is much more effective if the bad things happen during the story. Tragic backstories, by definition, happen before the story. This means that in order to convey all of the horrible things that have happened there’s probably going to be a boatload of exposition, lengthy speeches, heartfelt confessions, and, heaven forbid, flashbacks. If the most exciting parts of your story happened before page 1, you’re telling the wrong story.
The other issue with tragic backstory is that it tends to feel exploitative. If the backstory isn’t relevant to the plot, it starts to feel like a bunch of tragedies strung together for the sole purpose of eliciting pity.
Broodiness tends to be the natural result of tragic backstories, although it can also arise spontaneously. It’s especially common in love interests (think the dark, broody hero. He usually has green eyes and a troubled past). Broody characters like to stew in their own bad feelings, often make cryptic remarks about their past, and are prone to emotional outbursts. At the same time, they tend to crop us in places where readers are supposed to be sympathetic to them, while doing nothing to elicit sympathy. This means that the reader’s attitude and the writer’s begin to clash, breaking suspension of disbelief.
But like all things in fiction, broodiness and tragic backstories can be done well if you write with intention and tread carefully. Some tips for using these tropes without turning your story into a total whinge-fest:
- Think about what you really want. If you want a tragic backstory, first ask yourself why it’s important and what impact you want it to have on the text. A tragic backstory doesn’t earn sympathy. Neither does broodiness. Both of these things distance your characters from your readers. Broody characters put up walls and are intentionally difficult to get close to, while the pity-seeking tactics of the tragic backstory are emotionally exhausting. Sympathy—and better yet, empathy—comes from our ability to identify with a character.
- Incorporate your backstory. Whatever has happened in the character’s past should be in some way relevant to the present. Otherwise it’s just fluff. Consider how the events of the tragedy speak to the world of your story and to important plot developments. Also think about how your character’s past effects their mannerisms and ideology. An orphan who grew up on the streets is unlikely to espouse the same view points as someone who came from a sheltered middle-class background.
- Call your characters on their bullshit. Allow other characters to have realistic reactions to brooding and self-pity. One of the most annoying things about broody characters is that it’s rare for anyone to treat their broodiness as a flaw, and so they often get away with being rude to everyone around them. This is not just unrealistic but also grating on the reader (not to mention a red flag for Mary Sues).
- Don’t allow their angst to overwhelm the plot. There should always be forward movement. Every moment that they spend venting about their feelings is a moment that the plot is stagnating.
- Let them move on. In real life, most adults don’t walk around angsting about their childhood. When bad things happen to people they put their lives back together and move on. Sometimes it takes a long time. Sometimes it involves a lot of therapy. Sometimes the recovery period isn’t pretty and sometimes they carry scars. But people are resilient and given time they recover. Make sure that your characters do too.
- Subtlety. Always subtlety. Hitting readers over the head with the traumatic traumas of your characters tragic past isn’t going to work. If you want it to be believable, try to cut down on melodrama, tone down the confessions and outbursts, and generally make the backstory itself a bit more moderate. As per usual, detail and subtext are some of the most useful tools at your disposal.
Writing like a boss: Angst is relative. If your character lives in a world where a great calamity left everyone orphaned, their backstory stops being so uniquely tragic. It’s still sad, but their sadness isn’t quite so ostentatious. Likewise, if everyone around them has an equally sordid past, it’s unlikely that they’ll be treated with pity or made out to be a special snowflake. Consider how your character’s attitude and backstory fit with the setting.