So, I’ve been thinking about character backstory, and their inner life, their emotional life recently. Part of it has been in preparation for my second first draft of a story that I’m about to write, wanting to get a better inner/outer life setup going on, but part of it has just been paying attention to the storytelling that is going on around me.
I watched the new Spiderman movie last night, and a thought coalesced for me. It’s something I’d certainly thought before, and had probably heard, but had never had such a deep realization of the truth of it, nor perhaps thought it so succinctly. The timing was rather good, as I’ve been thinking a lot (in the back of my mind, as I do) about the superhero story I will be writing and the central character of that.
For a superhero, a good backstory is incredibly important; it’s what makes them human.
Think about someone like Iron Man. If he showed up and started blasting bad guys out of the sky, shrugging off bullets like they were nothing, and then going merely on his way we wouldn’t care much about him. Even if he was put up against foes on his level, we would only be marginally interested in what was happening. The gadgets are cool, and the visuals would probably be awesome, but it would be forgettable.
Even worse, when it is someone who is that powerful (Fantasy and Scifi, I’m talking to you here as well), it’s even more critical to make the character relatable, because a lot of what they do isn’t. I have never lifted a bridge with the power of my mind, swung from buildings on ropes of my own creation, or turned into an invincible killing machine. I can imagine, but not really relate.
On the other hand, I can understand well trying to save your people when you’ve lived a life of persecution, or being the nerdy kid in high school coping with your place in the world, or seeing the destruction and loss of control that anger can bring.
I think that can get lost, especially in genres like Scifi and Fantasy (I should know – this is what I write, and these are the mistakes that I make). I can have such a cool concept for the story, and the world can be amazing and interesting, and oh look at the shiny gadgets, and aren’t these monsters totally awesome, and and…
And see above.
I was talking with one of my friends about this, about wanting real characters in what we read, not just roles for the plot filled by warm bodies, and she had this to say:
“And this is what led me astray from Fantasy and SciFi. 🙁 No matter how fascinating the alien dinosaurs, it just got *boring* if I didn’t have anyone to care about. Maybe I am just not enough of a nerd to root for a planet for 200 pages.”
All that being said, I’m not a LitFic writer (no offense to those of you that are). I like plot. I like for random crazy things to happen, for there to be external conflict and a clear progression of the story. Also, creatures and gadgets and world are fucking awesome, and I love seeing what I (and others!) can come up with.
But I have to remind myself, to refocus myself, that it all starts with the characters. They don’t have to be masterpieces of literature, but they probably should have inner lives and goals and backstory that does more than just serve the plot. You know, to feel like people in a story where all this stuff is happening rather than just like a person-shaped cog in a plot-machine.
Though, that would be an interesting idea for a story, of people-shaped cogs in a giant machine…with dinosaurs!