I have a guilty pleasure in crime documentaries, particularly the ones that involve the lead up to a crime and a deeper understanding of the perpetrators in the crime. I am fascinated by their methodology and the sequence of events that lead up to the moment that the crime is committed. For me, it is a study in cause and consequence that creates a level of realism in an otherwise chaotic or fanciful moment of insanity. To the greater population of the world, a sudden crime is a in itself something unheard of to really happen. It is a dream, and more importantly merely a story. I see the element of story-telling prevalent in this lead up and find myself using that formula when creating a background for a character in both my writing and my roleplay.
A common question I hear often when referring to a character background is the one of tragedy. “Why do characters have such tragic backstories?” I think of it in terms of a true crime. If a person thinks as everyone else and grew up happy, in a mundane environment without any physical, emotional or mental hardships placed upon them, then why would the thought of crime even occur to them? When you really get down to it though, even those that had everything in their favor have a hardship. It may not be the death of all they love, but they have something that negatively impacted them. the negative is what initiates the momentum to make it positive. Granted I wouldn’t suggest anyone seeing the positive in a murder, but to the fractured mental state of the individual that acted upon such there would be a sense of making a previous wrong righted.
That sense of righting a wrong is both a topic for another blog and a point in this current blog. Morality is shaped by many outward forces. When you are thinking of someone with an irregular mindset, what they view as morally right may not be on the same level with what the majority has agreed to a moral right. A desperate widower with three kids on a minimum income job loses that only source of income. Now with four mouths to feed and no way to get a job to prevent his children from starving, he may see the act of stealing as a moral necessity for his children’s survival. He may be willing to suffer the consequences if it means his children will get to live.
Not all ‘tragedy’ must be catastrophic. When executed right, it can make for the most dynamic of characters, but more often than not it is overdone and set upon stereotypical patterns to create a cliche or overdone character. One of the more popular of these is the ‘edge lord’. This will be a future blog post on the use of nihilism within character creation and knowing it’s constraints and limits. It’ll be a big philosophy talk, I assure you. For now, though, we are keeping very general. Smaller tragedies are hard to set up for a long term story, but they also allow for more flexibility in the narrative.
An example of a lesser tragedy would be the following: the character was bullied for the birthmark on their right cheek. That in and of itself creates a full series of character quirks, but not something to initially propel a story. Creating a story that caters to the ideal of internal and external beauty, however, makes this lesser tragedy for a greater impact than it otherwise would be. Even if the initial story does not have this highlighted, having it as an added layer of character development makes the character’s ideals and views more real and well-rounded. Of course, having the entire body mutilated by a fire that happened when they were a child is cool too, but aside from the physical looks, the edginess of it becomes deeply specific to that unique background. In terms of the lesser, since the anomaly is smaller and can more easily be covered up, they can react to similar situations done towards others as well as themselves without letting others immediately know that is why they are doing what they are doing.
My point in this ramble is that the background of a character, those little facts and tidbits that may have occurred in their past all have a place and reason in their grander narrative. Not winning that spelling bee they studied relentlessly for may have repercussions in their ability to communicate later in life or create a sense of insecurity when it involves their overall intelligence. The latter is important because spelling is not equal to intelligence. It’s a part of the brain that involves memory. Being a poor speller means your memory is not as great as another, but not that you are any less intelligent for it. That distinction creates a means to allow character growth and thus makes it important to have.
So don’t be afraid to have a traumatic past for your character, but also do not be afraid to have them come from relatively normal backgrounds with the a couple of little things that effect them. Regardless of which you choose, or any variant in between, that background will help you shape the character for the better. It is always important to know the background of someone. The background is the foundation for the person you are today. Why wouldn’t it be for your character too?